Correction to This Article
This article about Maryland House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's) and his fight against certain proposals to toughen the state's laws on drunken driving misstated the affiliation of a lawyer who testified to a legislative committee and wrote a letter in opposition to one of the proposals. Leonard R. Stamm testified on behalf of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys' Association, not the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association.

Chairman of Md. House panel continues fight against harsher DUI laws

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010

With the legislative session dwindling down to a precious few days, the man everybody knows simply as "the chairman" shuffled through the mounds of paperwork on his desk in search of fresh evidence to make his case.

Other than the guard in the marbled lobby, Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's) was virtually the last person in the House office building. His staff was long gone, and the powerful committee he has controlled for 27 years had adjourned to nearby Annapolis eateries.

But Vallario wasn't quite finished with his argument against efforts to toughen Maryland's laws against drunken driving.

"I just want to be sure we do the right thing," he said.

Doing "the right thing" about drunken driving, which killed more than 150 people in Maryland in 2008, has captured considerable attention during a 90-day legislative session otherwise dominated by a massive budget crisis that leaves almost every state program and agency bloodied. The quest has involved powerful lobbyists on each side, futile backroom efforts at compromise and a pair of mini-rebellions against the chairman by his committee members.

More than anything, however, it has demonstrated that with his back to the wall and stripped of his usual cadre of allies, Vallario has the power and determination to stand his ground.

Early in the drunken driving debate, one of Vallario's closest allies said the outcome wouldn't be ordained "until we get in that backroom and Joe pulls out his list of the bills that are going to get passed."

The issue seems simple enough: Advocates for tougher drunken driving laws say the roads will become safer if first-time DUI offenders are required to install a breathalyzer ignition device in their car. Lobbyists for the alcohol industry, led by the legendary Bruce Bereano, say it's too harsh a punishment for the "one-sip-over-the-line" crowd that might contemplate a second glass of wine over dinner.

Bereano and the chairman have known each other for years. The other group lobbying against the interlock breathalyzer -- defense lawyers -- also is well known to Vallario because he is one of them.

They are pitted against another powerful lobby: Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has made mandatory use of interlocks for first-time offenders the centerpiece of its annual agenda in legislatures across the country.

From the outset, MADD recognized that getting a bill through Vallario's House Judiciary Committee was their greatest obstacle.

The first true inkling of his influence came on the Senate side, where a bill identical to the one in the House was introduced.

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