Redistricting looms, but Vallario retains old-school grip on Md. House Judiciary Committee

Mark Gail/The Washington Post - Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr.

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The legislative aide wanted a moment with the portly man in the rumpled suit, the man everyone in Annapolis knows as “Mr. Chairman,” who at that moment was marching through the halls of Maryland’s state Capitol.

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, stopped to listen to another pitch on another legislative proposal, this one to ban prison guards from shackling inmates more than three months pregnant.

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“Are they shackling them down when they’re delivering?” Vallario asked the staffer.

“Were they shackled for transportation?”

“Where’s the problem?”

“I’ll look at the file,” the chairman promised, then moved on, mumbling to no one in particular: “We don’t want to pass that bill.”

Ever since he took over Judiciary a generation ago, Vallario’s verdict — up, down or indifferent — has shaped the way Maryland deals with crime and punishment. There he was Friday, presiding for nearly 14 hours as more than 1,000 people traveled to Annapolis to argue the merits of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s gun-control bill. The governor’s death penalty repeal, about which Vallario has reservations, also will come before his committee.

Vallario, who turns 76 this week, is not a man who embraces change. Elected to the assembly in 1974, when Gerald Ford was president, he has survived seven governors, 10 elections and innumerable critics who have portrayed him as too easy on drunk drivers, rapists and spousal abusers, among others. And he has been accused of helping kill the kind of gun-control bill now before his committee because he’s also an attorney who represents clients charged with gun crimes.

Yet the chairman now finds himself facing the kind of change that could threaten his political survival, a change caused by redistricting, which has remade his district’s boundaries so that half now includes Bowie, a northern chunk of Prince George’s where he has never campaigned.

Driven by population shifts and political manuevering, the redistricting altered legislative lines across Maryland. Yet, Vallario’s friends question whether the senior Democrats who most influenced the new map were trying to push Vallario into retirement.

Whatever the case, Vallario’s foes are tantalized by the twist.

“I love it,” said Jan Withers, president of Mothers against Drunk Driving, which has long clashed with the chairman. “Over many years, it’s been very difficult to get what we consider to be lifesaving legislation passed in Judiciary because Mr. Vallario is an obstructionist. I would hope that people in his new district look at his record.”

Vallario expressed no worries as he sat behind his desk on a recent afternoon, promising to run for reelection while dipping into the tall barrel of bright orange cheese balls he keeps behind his desk.

“I’ll do what I normally do and we’ll be in pretty good shape,” he said, alluding to a campaign regimen that typically includes drop-ins at civic gatherings, scouts meetings and schools. “There’s an old saying: It’s not how good you are. It’s how good the competition is.”

The idea of retirement, he said, “is horrible,” even after 38 years of marathon legislative sessions, Rotary Club-style dinners, and commutes between Annapolis and his Upper Marlboro estate — all while managing his robust law practice.

Then there are the assaults on his integrity. Like when then-Del. Sue Kullen (D-Calvert), speaking for the Women’s Caucus in 2010, referred to Vallario’s “tyrannical leadership” and decried Judiciary’s “rude” treatment of witnesses.

“People do anything to get in the paper,” Vallario said when asked about the criticism. “Look where she is now.”

Kullen lost her reelection campaign in 2010. Vallario, meanwhile, was off to another meeting of the House of Delegates, where he is one of two longest-serving members.

Fearing ‘the domino effect’

At his desk on a recent afternoon, the chairman listened as Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Cecil) implored him to hold a vote on his proposal to ban therapists from having sex with their patients.

The bill is the kind that can trigger debates so graphic and raucous that Smigiel, a Judiciary member, compares the committee to a pirate ship, with Vallario as captain. A couple of years ago, Smigiel gave out skull-and-bones stickers with the words, “Under a Black Flag We Shall Sail.” Some of his colleagues stuck them on their laptops. Vallario doesn’t use a laptop, or a computer, for that matter. But he still appreciated the gesture.

No, the chairman told Smigiel, there will be no vote on his bill. Not yet.

Vallario often refers to “the domino effect” when considering legislation. He views himself as a filter, making sure his colleagues aren’t overcome by emotion or a yearning for headlines to “pass bad bills.” If he doesn’t like a bill, Vallario can sentence it to a purgatory otherwise known as his desk drawer.

“Sometimes you have to save them from themselves,” Vallario said. “I want to be here to protect the people.” Imagining the Judiciary without himself as chairman, Vallario said, “I worry about what would happen — that crazy things would happen.”

The chairman can be blunt, as when he dismissed the anti-shackling bill. “I can’t restrict what the guards are gonna do,” he said. But he can also change his mind. After listening to six hours of testimony on that same bill, and no objections from prison officials, he said he was more open to the proposal. “It’s got legs,” he said.

The chairman was more opaque about the death penalty and gun control. No, he’s not a fan of executions — “I don’t like seeing people get the juice,” he said. But he likes it as a potential punishment for someone who, say, “poisons 10,000 people” by getting into the water supply.

Perhaps, he suggested, he could support the repeal if there were exceptions for mass murderers. He said he needs to hear more.

As for the governor’s gun control bill, Vallario offered no opinion, at least not before sitting through all the testimony at a public hearing that lasted until 3:45 a.m. Saturday. Still, he said, nothing O’Malley proposes would have stopped the shootings in Newtown, Conn., a state that he said has “some of the toughest gun control laws in the country.”

“If you could get rid of all the guns, that would be one thing,” he said. “But you can’t.”

In past years, he’s helped kill similar legislation. But this time his influence has been diminished. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) referred O’Malley’s gun legislation to another committee as well, a rare move that effectively neutralizes Vallario’s power to derail it.

House veteran

For someone who spends hours every day buried in the fine print of the legal code, Vallario is quite the jovial man. On the House floor,  his colleagues shake his hands, put their arms around his shoulders, squeeze his elbow, pat him on his chest. They throw their heads back and laugh at his one-liners.

Even his detractors say they admire Vallario’s work ethic, something he said he inherited from his father, an Italian immigrant who painted houses and then department stores and raised his family on Alabama Avenue in Southeast Washington.

When Vallario was a teenager, his father gave him a choice: the paintbrush or college. Vallario chose college, then law school, and was elected to the Assembly in 1974, an era when he could sit on the House floor and smoke fat cigars.

Along the way, he and his wife, Mary, had six children, 21 grandchildren and amassed a real estate portfolio of some 20 properties, including his 120-acre estate, where a three-quarter-mile driveway leads to his sprawling brick house. On a parcel in Suitland, he put up a six-story office building, the top floor of which is occupied by his law firm. He took over the Judiciary Committee in 1993.

Vallario is not the first chairman with a reputation for snuffing legislation. Joe Owens, Judiciary’s chair from 1973 to 1986, was nicknamed “The Abominable No Man” because he killed so many proposals to bolster gun control laws, drunk-driving penalties and crime victims’ rights.

Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery), a Judiciary member who also served with Owens, said Vallario once held a bill he drafted for seven years before allowing a committee vote.

“Have I gotten upset? Absolutely,” Simmons said. But he added that Vallario allows for far more debate than Owens did when he ran the committee. “If Joe Vallario passed every bill that came in, the constitution would have been turned on its head,” Simmons said. “He’s a tough guy — intellectually tough — and he doesn’t believe in change for change’s sake.”

Vince DeMarco, a lobbyist who both clashed and agreed with Vallario on gun control bills in the 1990s, is advocating for the proposal now before Judiciary. Vallario, he said, tries to balance public safety with citizens’ right to self-defense. “He’s smart, works hard and has lots of integrity,” DeMarco said. “Having been on both sides, I’d rather have him as a partner.”

Not everyone is so generous. Prosecutors have long decried Vallario’s opposition to mandatory sentences. At the moment, they’re opposing a bill Vallario co-sponsored that would allow people convicted of crimes such as theft and assault in District Court to remain free while considering an appeal.

“The larger pattern is that things that make the life of a prosecutor easier, he will not support,” said Dario J. Broccolino, Howard County’s chief prosecutor, who heads the Maryland State’s Attorneys Association. But “where it makes our cases more difficult, he’s supportive. What it does is make a defense attorney’s job easier. And let me think, who’s a defense attorney?”

Vallario dismissed the suggestion that he’s driven by self-interest, saying that his daughter and son-in-law are prosecutors, both of them working for Broccolino. “I’m pro law and order but I also believe in protecting constitutional rights,” Vallario said. He opposes mandatory sentences, he said, because “each case should be judged on the merits.”

His detractors, he said, fail to acknowledge his compromises. Yes, he opposed MADD’s drunk-driving proposals because he believed they went too far. But in 2011 he supported legislation to strengthen Maryland’s penalties.

“They’ve got to pick on the chairman,” Vallario said of the enduring criticism.

If his tone suggested acceptance, his briefcase suggested otherwise.

Tucked inside the bulging black leather bag is a collection of campaign flyers his opponent in the 2010 Democratic primary mailed to voters, some including a photo of Vallario, his white hair combed back, his thin mustache framing a scowl, his eyes glowering behind thick glasses.

“Protect the Victims, Not the Criminals, Vote NO on Joe Vallario,” read one.

“The Next Time You Buckle Up, Ask Joe Vallario Why He Sides with Drunk Drivers,” read another.

A third said Vallario is to anti-crime measures “what segregationist Democrats like Gov. George Wallace were to civil rights legislation.”

He still carries the flyers, he said, “to remind me that people can be vicious.” He also pointed out that he defeated his opponent by more than 5,000 votes.

A district makeover

For more than two decades, Vallario has run on a ticket with Del. James E. Proctor Jr. (D-Prince George’s) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the trio hosting election-year barbecues at Vallario’s estate at which thousands of Democrats ate burgers and hot dogs and listened to speeches.

“Here’s the secret,” Vallario said, by way of explaining his longevity. He flipped open a photo album from the 2010 bash, stuffed with shots of him posing with the governor, Miller, go-go star Chuck Brown and rank-and-file Democrats, many of whom left with T-shirts and towels promoting his name.

“Invite ’em to your house,” Vallario said. “We had a heck of a time.”

Because of redistricting, Vallario no longer will run with Miller and Proctor, which has generated speculation among his friends about the machinations that forced the chairman into a new area. In large measure, they wonder if Miller, who sat on the panel overseeing the redistricting, pushed Vallario out.

Miller, in a statement, said he “deferred” to the county’s House delegation “as to what was best to ensure maximum representation.”

Vallario, for his part, said, “I can live with it.”

His new district includes his home base of Upper Marlboro and extends north into Bowie, with blacks outnumbering whites by a 2-to-1 margin. In his old district, the population was about split. “Joe is going to have a much harder time at reelection because of the new territory,” Proctor said.

Vallario claimes he has no worries. He has $82,000 in his campaign account. He is ready to knock on doors. He is ready to host another barbecue.

“I’ve been practicing law in this community for 50 years,” he said. “People know me.”

And if they don’t? If he loses?

Not a problem.

The chairman has drawers filled with legal cases to pursue full-time.

 
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