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Ex-‘Rabble Rouser’ Takes a Gavel: ‘It’s Great to Play a Central Role’

Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Chair Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) will lead a hearing this week on Kirwan Commission recommendations. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

For all their philosophical differences, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) do agree on one thing: There was a time, not that long ago, when Miller would have been highly unlikely to tap Pinsky to chair a key committee.

For nearly a quarter century, the Prince Georgian has served as a member of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee without ever getting the chance to lead it.

An unabashed progressive who says what he thinks, Pinsky, 68, knows that his lefty agenda and occasionally impatient manner are why — despite serving six terms — he’s always been passed over.

But the 2018 elections brought major change to the Senate.

Two of Miller’s four committee chairmen went down to defeat and a third decided to retire. Other lawmakers who might have stepped into the void left the Senate to pursue other offices or were defeated, including the president pro tem.

So, faced with numerous empty seats in the front row of the Senate chamber and the need to bring a seasoned issues expert forward, someone he could trust, Miller contacted Pinsky last fall and asked him to helm EHE, quickly making him one of the Senate’s most influential members in the process.

“He’s come a long way,” Miller, a conservative Democrat from Southern Maryland told Maryland Matters. “We still disagree on a lot of personal views, but I trust him implicitly. He’s an honest man.”

“He’s going to be a fine chair of Education, Health and Environment.”

Pinsky, who previously served as EHE vice chairman, said he benefited from having a strong relationship with Miller, despite policy and stylistic differences. Pinsky is careful to notify Miller well in advance whenever he dissents from a leadership position.

It probably didn’t hurt that when then-Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell (D-Baltimore County) attempted a coup in 2000, Pinsky told Miller, “Mike, I’m staying where I am. I’m not going with them.” (The coup fizzled.)

In addition, Miller may have seen in Pinsky a way to build a bridge to some his newer — and in many cases, younger and more progressive — senators.

“A number of young progressives came in who were very close to my perspective — minimum wage, cleaning up the bay, health care for all, whatever it is,” Pinsky said. “I think people like [Sens.] Cory [McCray] and Antonio Hayes and Mary Washington and Sarah Elfreth, they’re very liberal to the point of being progressive. So I think having that influx also sort of reinforced the idea of having a voice for those people.”

A rabble-rouser

Pinsky served two terms in the House of Delegates when he moved to the Senate in 1994, and has never been shy about bucking leadership when he felt the merits of an issue demanded it.

“Yes, we were definitely fellow rabble-rousers, trouble-makers in the [state] Senate,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a former colleague who calls Pinsky “a dear friend” and “a kindred spirit.”

A 20-year classroom educator who had a long tenure as an organizer with the Montgomery County teachers’ union, education is one of Pinsky’s passions. When then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and Miller were working to bring the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, to replace the dear, departed Colts, Pinsky and Van Hollen led the uprising, championing a push for “Schools, Not Stadiums,” an effort that greatly frustrated the two leaders.

“We served together back on the House Environmental Matters Committee,” Van Hollen remembers. “It was like the rogues’ gallery. It was me, Pinsky and [Maryland’s current Attorney General] Brian Frosh. We were all sitting next to each other and we gave [then-chairman] Ron Guns fits.”

A different gig

As chairman, Pinsky knows that a big part of his job now is to shepherd hundreds of bills through EHE, some of which he will like more than others.

“When you’re a state senator and you’re advancing our own agenda, you should be a full-throated advocate for your position,” Van Hollen said. “When you’re chairman of a committee, you’ve got to find the consensus position in order to get stuff passed, and he will do that.”

“It’s a much different job,” said Frosh, another friend who was elected to the House and Senate on the same days as Pinsky and rose to be chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee despite his ideological differences with Miller.

“He’s demonstrated that he has the ability to listen patiently and give everybody an opportunity to be heard. It’s a big change from just being a member. Everybody is looking at you all the time. I know he can do the job.”

The EHE agenda

Pinsky sees three big environmental issues this session:

— Restoring the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population. “They’re very important to the health of the bay, and we’re at 1 percent of our historic high,” he said. “That’s a major problem. We have to bring oysters back, and that’s going to be very contentious.”

— Tackling farm-based runoff that harms the bay. “We have a lot of agricultural runoff, phosphorus, that comes, unfortunately, from a lot of chicken manure,” Pinsky said. “And you have a lot of different players and stakeholders in that. We need to find a solution that protects farmers but also protects the bay.”

— Climate change. “We have to be more aggressive. We have a lot more to do,” he said. “Now we have to talk about how we reduce carbon. Is it carbon pricing? How much clean energy do we have? I think we have to pass a 50 percent clean energy [bill].”

The big education-related priority this session, Pinsky said, revolves around the so-called Kirwan Commission and school construction funding, which he said could end up being related.

“I’d like to see at least $325 million spent” to advance Kirwan’s recommendations, the chairman said. “I think the governor’s wrong in taking the [casino revenue] lockbox money and putting it to [school] construction. It ought to be for Kirwan and [classroom] operations.

“I think you should find money elsewhere for the construction.”

“And I have to say, it’s a shame that by shifting that money to construction, he’s playing off people who want to improve instruction in the schools and the teachers, against people who want new buildings.”

Despite his committee’s name, most of the juicy health-related bills go to the Finance Committee, Pinsky said, though he does expect several important election-related bills to come before EHE, which will enable him to pursue his political reform agenda.

A brand new committee

Six of the 11 members of EHE are new to the committee, and three of the six are new to Annapolis. (The other newcomers came from the House of Delegates.)

On the second day of session last week, the new chairman led his committee through a lengthy orientation, covering everything from whether to eat in the committee room (don’t) to whether to be on time for bill hearings (do).

Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel), the lone GOP holdover on the committee, said he expected only “minor, logistical changes” on the panel between Pinsky and his predecessor, former Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore City), a voluble lawmaker who was close to several industry lobbyists. Conway lost her reelection bid last year to Washington in the Democratic primary.

The first bill to hit the Senate floor this year came from the EHE committee – a measure requiring electronic registration for State House lobbyists.

“He’s off to a good start,” Simonaire said of the new chairman. “I’m hopeful.”

Pinsky told members of the panel last week that if they have a bill that requires special attention, to notify him early in the session and he will try to help them get it passed. And he explained why his vice-chair, Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (D-Baltimore County) will often be on the phone, relaying information from the committee’s legal counsel, when the Senate debates an intriguing measure on the floor.

He frequently stopped his presentation to encourage questions.

“Look, I’ve changed over the years I’ve been here,” Pinsky told Maryland Matters. “It’s great to play a central role. I think I’ve been ready for this.”

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Ex-‘Rabble Rouser’ Takes a Gavel: ‘It’s Great to Play a Central Role’