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Government & Politics

Sen. Edwards Prepares For His Farewell: ‘I Never Thought I’d Be Doing This This Long’

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) honors Sen. George C. Edwards (R-Garrett), who is retiring at the end of the year. Photo by Hannah Gaskill.

Editor’s Note: As the General Assembly session comes to an end, Maryland Matters will feature stories about several retiring lawmakers. This is the first in a series. 

A couple of weeks ago, state Sen. George C. Edwards (R-Garrett) appeared virtually in the House Health and Government Operations Committee to present one of his bills. Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City), who entered the General Assembly at the same time as Edwards, in 1983, asked the senator if he remembered the first bill he introduced.

“I said, ‘Sandy, I can’t remember what I did last weekend, let alone 40 years ago,'” Edwards recalled replying.

A few days later, Rosenberg testified on a bill before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, where Edwards serves, so Edwards thought he’d asked his former House colleague the same question. Rosenberg described his first bill in great detail.

“That’s why he’s running again and I’m not,” Edwards, who turns 74 on Saturday, said with a chuckle.

Edwards may not remember his first bill — for the record, it concerned truck vendors’ licenses in Garrett County — but as he prepares for the final days of his final legislative session, plenty of people are remembering Edwards’ long list of accomplishments, particularly his role as a congenial, mild-mannered but forceful advocate for Mountain Maryland.

Along with Rosenberg, Edwards is the longest-serving current member of the General Assembly. His colleagues paid tribute to him on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, as they have this week for the three other senators who are planning to retire from politics at the end of the year (two more are leaving to run for other offices).

“I never thought I’d be doing this this long,” Edwards said in an interview this week. “I have mixed emotions about that.”

Edwards was a star fullback in high school and college and was drafted by the Baltimore Colts, but never played in the pros, He said he wasn’t really thinking about a career in public service but decided to run for a seat on the Grantsville Town Council, in 1972, because someone had to.

Two years later, he was elected to the Garrett County Commission. In 1978, he lost a Republican primary for the House of Delegates to two-term incumbent DeCorsey E. Bolden by just 14 votes, spent another two years on the Grantsville council, then beat Bolden to win a House seat in 1982.

Bolden would make a few more attempts to win back his old job back, but Edwards beat him by increasingly large margins every time. Edwards served in the House for two dozen years, then entered the Senate in 2007.

“To be honest with you, you can probably do more as a commissioner [than in the legislature],” he said. “You only have to convince one of your colleagues to go along with you.”

Yet Edwards has built a very consequential career in Annapolis, 184 miles from his home.

“A lot of people where I live don’t think people in other parts of Maryland think we’re in Maryland,” he observed.

In both the House and the Senate, Edwards was assigned to the budget-writing committees — making him well-positioned to steer largesse to a part of the state that is both economically distressed and often forgotten.

“I’m probably the loudmouth for rural parts of the state, because I feel like we often get the shaft,” he said. “My colleagues probably get tired of hearing me harp on rural issues.”

But fellow lawmakers never describe him that way. In fact, the opposite is true.

“Because of the relationship he has had on the committee and with the committee chairs, he’s brought home more to Western Maryland than anyone I can think of,” said Senate Majority Leader Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), a former chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee. “It’s all about relationships, remember. You can’t say no to George because he’s such a nice guy.”

House Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany), who represents a subdistrict within Edwards’ Senate district, calls him “a tremendous asset to Western Maryland and an incredible mentor to me personally.”

“Honestly, George is the most decent, one of the most respected people I’ve ever met — not just in Annapolis, but anywhere,” Buckel said.

On a recent afternoon, Edwards greeted a reporter in his bare office, which had already been stripped of all the artwork and artifacts that had hung on the wall. As he monitored a House committee hearing  where he’d soon be testifying on his laptop, he held a small handwritten piece of paper in his hand on which he’d jotted down some of his accomplishments. The list includes:

  • Alterations to a revenue formula that determines how much a county receives when the state owns 15% or more of the acreage in that jurisdiction.
  • Changes to Maryland’s Program Open Space, a land acquisition and recreation program, to make sure Garrett and Allegany counties aren’t hamstrung when it comes to certain development opportunities.
  • Changes in rules governing the Western Maryland timber industry.
  • Increasing the speed limit on sections of Interstate 68 to 70 miles per hour.
  • Negotiating with the state Department of Natural Resources on what constitutes Maryland Wildlands property.
  • Funneling more revenues from the Rocky Gap Casino Resort in Flintstone to Allegany County government.
  • Working to exempt communities in Western Maryland whose wastewater doesn’t empty into the Chesapeake Bay from the state’s second “flush tax.”
  • Preserving the annual black bear hunt in Western Maryland.
  • Legislation this session that is nearing the finish line to establish the Western Maryland Economic Future Investment Board and Fund, to provide grant or loan funding to capital infrastructure and business development projects in the region.

Many of Edwards’ legislative initiatives through the years have been attempts to fight against what he and many of his constituents consider government encroachments that rob the region of its ability to fully realize its economic potential.

“They’ve taken away a good bit of our economic opportunities,” he said.

In addition to his tireless advocacy for Western Maryland, Edwards has held several key positions in the General Assembly, including as House minority leader, chair of the Senate Executive Nominations Committee and his current role as the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics — which makes him the only Republican in leadership in the legislature. While he’s a conservative on issues like gun rights, natural resources and government regulation, Edwards is seen as a moderating force in Annapolis, as the Republican caucuses in the Senate and House move to the right.

“He’s kind of like our dean,” said Sen. J.B. Jennings (R-Harford), the former Senate minority leader. “He’s that elder statesman. Sometimes, when the Young Turks want to run down the hill and fight, he’s the more reasonable, ‘maybe you don’t want to do this’ kind of guy. He’s the wiser one.”

Annapolis has become a more politically polarized place during Edwards’ tenure, a development he laments.

“When I first got here, you had a lot of conservative Democrats, most of whom have been replaced by Republicans,” he said. “The Democrats have gone much more to left, especially in the House. The Republicans have gone much more to the right.

“It’s getting to look a lot more like D.C. I hope it doesn’t get so bad. We don’t want to go there.”

‘I can’t imagine being here without him’

The 1st District is conservative territory but it has sent Democrats to the House as recently as 2010. And for 28 years, a House subdistrict was represented by Del. Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D), who became chair of the Economic Matters Committee and then spent nine years as House speaker.

Asked whether voters of the district made a mistake when they ousted Taylor in 2002 in favor of Republican LeRoy E. Myers Jr., who had been serving on the Washington County Commission, Edwards paused and reflected for a long time.

“When you look back, yes,” he finally replied. “A lot of people thought that whoever won, they’d automatically be the speaker.”

Taylor had largely fallen out of favor in Western Maryland for helping to guide gun control legislation through the Assembly in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. But Edwards said he’s looking forward to a dedication ceremony in May, when a bridge in Cumberland will be named for the former speaker, who is now 87 years old and in failing health.

Taylor’s powerful perch was an undeniable asset for Western Maryland, and his departure only elevated Edwards’ importance in the region’s never-ending battle for state aid and recognition.

There’s another critical election under way in Western Maryland, to replace Edwards in the Senate. It’s a battle on the Republican side between Del. Michael W. McKay (R-Allegany) and Allegany County Commissioner Jake Shade. A Democrat, Michael Dreisbach, who owns and operates a vacation lodge outside Frostburg, is also running. Edwards said he has a preference in the GOP race, but isn’t likely to reveal it publicly.

Edwards doesn’t know what he’ll do when his term ends in January, other than “change gears and keep on trucking.” He and his wife Linda will be celebrating their 55th wedding anniversary soon, and when he’s asked what the secret to their union’s longevity is, Edwards jokes that if you factor in the three months he’s been away in Annapolis every year for the past 40 years, it’s shaved 10 years off the marriage. In fact, when his two kids were younger — he now has eight grandchildren — he’d sneak home from Annapolis some afternoons to watch their basketball games — waking up at 4 a.m. to make it back to the next day’s floor sessions.

Edward said he hopes to find part-time work, especially if it’s something that advances Mountain Maryland’s interests on any number of fronts. Still, whatever work he does next may not be as impactful for the mountain region as his influential tenure in the General Assembly — and colleagues are already mourning his looming retirement.

“I can’t imagine being here without him, to tell you the truth,” Buckel said. “He’s a good man. That’s the best thing you can say about him. He’s a good man.”

During his farewell address Thursday, speaking from the Senate rostrum, Edwards told his colleagues that when he arrived in Annapolis, he sought to educate his fellow lawmakers that Allegany County isn’t spelled with an H, that Maryland’s longest border is with West Virginia, and that Western Marylanders speak in a particularly folksy way.

“You speak slow and you m-m-m mumble a little bit,” he said, as his colleagues roared with laughter.

Edwards also recalled that when he joined the legislature, there were only 13 Republicans serving in the House and seven in the Senate.

“I can count,” he remembered thinking. “I said, hmm, I need to make some friends. And I need to make some friends on [the Democratic] side of the aisle. And I think I’ve done that.”

Edwards said he was reluctant to give his colleagues advice, as Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) had urged him to, but offered the observation that in politics, as in life, honesty is the best policy.

“Be yourself,” he said. “Don’t try to be something you’re not, because that catches up with you real quick.”

In his interview with Maryland Matters, Edwards expressed hopefulness about the future of the Western Maryland economy, and said the legislation that is landing on the governor’s desk, to set up the Western Maryland Economic Future Investment program and provide $50 million in state funds over the next three years, will be especially meaningful.

“We’re hoping that can stimulate some activity,” he said. “Unless the whole economy goes down the tubes, I’m pretty optimistic that Mountain Maryland is going to be on the move.”

On Thursday, his colleagues bestowed on Edwards a lasting honor: They unanimously voted to name the legislation after him.