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.