Del. Lawton Dies After Speech at Symposium

Jane Lawton
Jane Lawton (Family Photo)

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By Ann E. Marimow and Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 30, 2007

Montgomery County Del. Jane Lawton, 63, died of an apparent heart attack yesterday, collapsing after giving a speech in downtown Washington, her family said.

Lawton, a Democrat who represented parts of Chevy Chase, Kensington and Silver Spring and was the county's cable administrator, was pronounced dead at George Washington Hospital Center about 11:45 a.m.

"The state has lost a person of great commitment, great courage and great compassion," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who first worked with Lawton when she was mayor of Chevy Chase in the 1980s. "She was indefatigable on every issue, no matter how big or small."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) described Lawton as "a lifelong public servant who dedicated her energy and talents to enriching the lives of others."

Lawton ran unsuccessfully first for the House of Delegates in 2002. Three years later, she was appointed to fill the District 18 legislative seat vacated by former delegate John A. Hurson. Last November, Lawton was elected on her own right, the highest vote-getter in the Democratic primary.

In the House, Lawton drew on her telecommunications expertise and experience in federal, municipal and county government. She made her mark in her short time there, championing issues involving a cleaner Chesapeake Bay and stiffer penalties for human trafficking. In the process, she endeared herself to colleagues with her even temperament, gregarious personality and Oklahoma twang.

"Nobody else in the legislature calls me darling," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore), a Kansas native and chair of the Environmental Matters Committee, of which Lawton was a member. "She kept all the best parts of the Midwest."

Lawton headed a task force studying ways to enhance green buildings in the state, and won passage this year of two bills to curb sprawl and reduce pollution flowing into the bay. She planned to file a bill with Sen. Jamin B. Raskin (D-Montgomery) for consideration in January to allow public schools to purchase food grown by local farmers for school lunches.

Lawton had finished speaking at a telecommunications symposium at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center yesterday when she collapsed after returning to her seat. She is survived by her husband Stephan, from whom she was separated, and her daughters, Stephanie, 26, and Kathleen Lawton-Trask, 33, both of Alexandria.

Lawton had a history of irregular heartbeats and was taking medication, her husband said. But that did not stop her from tackling mountains in Colorado, playing tennis or attending football games at the University of Oklahoma, her alma mater. She had recently traded in her old Nissan Maxima for a Mercedes-Benz, which both thrilled her and made her a little embarrassed, said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Democrat who represents the same district.

Lawton was thriving in the General Assembly and "at the top of her game," her husband said. News of her death stunned the state and Montgomery County political establishment.

"She cared passionately about serving and helping others, but she never took herself too seriously," said Karen C. McManus, a close friend and Van Hollen's head of constituent services. "She wasn't in it for what it was going to add to her r¿sum¿."

In the special session that ended this month, friends said Lawton agonized over the legalization of slot machine gambling. She was personally opposed, as are many of her constituents, and was lobbied by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to support the measure, her husband said. In the end, she voted along with many Montgomery lawmakers for a bill authorizing a referendum on slots next year but against a companion bill with the nuts and bolts of how gambling would operate in Maryland.

Lawton began her political career shortly after graduating from Oklahoma when she went to work for her congressman, Carl Albert, who went on to become U.S. House speaker. She was deeply involved in local schools and politics, serving as PTA president at Rosemary Hills Elementary School and for 12 years in Chevy Chase, including four terms as mayor. She was special assistant to County Executive Neal Potter in the 1990s.

In Chevy Chase, Lawton led the fight in the 1970s to tear down an old middle school and create the Leland Center, now a magnet of community activity, which Madaleno said yesterday is a living legacy to her efforts. Lawton's home was a hub for neighborhood activities, Democratic gatherings and parties, where she handed out 40 to 50 gifts at Christmas.

"When someone is so warm and vivacious, it is just incomprehensible to imagine that just suddenly they are gone," Madaleno said.

Lawton was to be honored last night by the Maryland Municipal League at a banquet in Gaithersburg for her "outstanding service" on behalf of local governments.


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