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Lieutenant governor carves out a role in Maryland

By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 8:46 PM

Every year that Anthony G. Brown has been Maryland's lieutenant governor, he has walked a trembling fourth-grader on stage in front of a crowd of 1,000 or more in the cavernous convention center in Ocean City to deliver the year's "If I were a mayor" speech. Often he holds the contest winner's hand for a moment to steady and comfort the child.

A fast-walking colonel in the Army Reserve and Harvard law grad with a penchant for furrowing his brow deeper than most 48-year-olds, Brown admits he didn't always appreciate that role as much as he does now.

Ups and downs in his personal life during the last four years - a divorce, the murder of a cousin in a domestic dispute, and a general feeling of being "more emotional" in the years since a tour of duty in Iraq - have made him a better leader, he says. As he and Gov. Martin O'Malley campaign for re-election on Nov. 2, Brown says he feels more able to empathize and meet people where they are.

That the escort of an elementary student affords Brown one of his biggest audiences of the year says a lot about the still traditionally ceremonial role of Maryland's lieutenant governor. But that small-town mayors and other officials in the room crowd around him afterward to talk economic policy and development hints at one of the little-seen and more unexpected ways he's tried to use the office.

When Martin O'Malley, then mayor of Baltimore, chose Brownas his running mate before O'Malley's successful 2006 gubernatorial bid, the rising star in the state Democratic Party and former military helicopter pilot was seen as a potentially forceful wingman for the governor in Annapolis.

House-hold help?

Brown was busy at the time counting votes for Democrats as House majority whip and was on a fast track, many thought, to eventually taking over as speaker of the House. Brown's two terms in the legislature representing a district that includes Largo and Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George's County were expected to translate into a hands-on lieutenant governor able to help shepherd O'Malley's legislative priorities through the General Assembly. In particular, many believed, Brown would help navigate the tricky politics of the Prince George's delegation - and help keep support solid for O'Malley in the relatively affluent, majority-black county.

But Brown's nearly complete four-year term has turned out to look much different from what many in the State House say they expected. He has been front-and-center only on a handful of issues before the legislature, leading to some hallway whispers and veiled criticism from fellow Democrats that he has played a lesser role or seemed to miss altogether key battles, such as the 2007 special session in which O'Malley succeeded in convincing the legislature to pass a package of $1.4 billion in tax increases and put a referendum on slots on the ballot.

Brown, instead, has gone another route; with O'Malley's blessing, he's tried to carve out, he says, what could be described as the role of a mini chief executive - albeit an obscure one. He has focused and spent more time than anything else on areas of policy that remain largely out of sight to the public.

"I didn't want to be the 142nd legislator, but just sitting on the second floor," Brown said, referring to the location of the lieutenant governor's and governor's offices in the State House. "In many ways being lieutenant governor is a support role, but in a limited way, the governor has given me discreet responsibilities to take the lead . . . the key is getting people to understand what those issues are. It's not always obvious."

The BRAC baron

Under a bill passed and signed by O'Malley during his first year in office, Brown gained the first statutory authority of any Maryland lieutenant governor in decades. He is chair of the governor'ssubcabinet overseeing the state's military base realignment and closure program, or BRAC.

"It certainly has been the big, single effort in the office of lieutenant governor," Brown said. "And I'm proud of it."

Maryland is one of the winners in the national reorganization of military installations begun by Congress in 1990. Some 60,000 military personnel are in the process of moving to bases around the state. Assigned the issue, Brown and his staff ran with it. They pored over a master plan, helped create economic development zones to try to lure private- sector businesses to build around bases, and routinely have traveled to Capitol Hill to seek funding for road improvements and other projects related to the influx.

But planning military base expansions is a wonky, small world, Brown acknowledges.

"I think it was received very well by what I sort of call the BRAC community, those folks who are looking at BRAC planning and implementation and making sure we're doing BRAC right," he said.

Brown has interacted with far more state residents through another goal O'Malley gave him: figuring out how to better serve the health-care needs of returning veterans. He has visited dozens of facilities statewide - the vast majority of Maryland's providers of mental-health care or other health-care services for veterans.

More broadly on health care, O'Malley tapped Brown to co-chair the commission charged with carrying out the the federal health-care overhaul in Maryland.

In speeches, O'Malley regularly refers to Brown as "the most effective lieutenant governor in the country" and calls the veterans' issues and base expansion work an obvious nexus, given his continued service in the Army Reserves and his roughly 10-month assignment in Iraq in 2005.

A cousin's death

Brown's increased advocacy on domestic issues in the past two years flowed from a personal tragedy.

Brown successfully pushed in 2009 for two measures to give judges more authority to take firearms from people accused of committing domestic violence. The bills had failed previously, but Brown testified and made a personal plea for harsher tactics after his cousin, Catherine Brown, a teacher at the Beauvoir School of Washington National Cathedral, was shot and killed in 2008 by her estranged boyfriend.

Another experience that Brown said has profoundly affected his outlook on governing is his recent divorce from his wife, Patricia Arzuaga.

"The divorce - look, family life is tough," Brown said, adding that after his own experience, he doesn't like to use a line about helping Maryland's "working families" that is a staple of O'Malley's on the campaign trail.

"When we talk about 'fighting for working Maryland's families' - first of all, whenever I see it written in my remarks I say, 'Take that . . . out, we're fighting for all Maryland's families,' " Brown said. "A lot of what we do impacts whether families are going to stay together or not and . . . I'm very proud of my kids and my ex and I, we continue to parent together. But there are challenges that families have. So my challenges inform how I approach it."

Del. Melony G. Griffith (D), chair of the Prince George's House delegation, said opinions about Brown, whom she counts as a friend, may differ, but she believes he has "taken the role of lieutenant governor and shaped the position with his specific skills and expertise."

"He has used it to continue to be a champion for those issues that he fought for in the legislature, especially domestic violence and veterans," she said.

Brown said he is focused on next Tuesday's election, but in Democratic circles he is also widely expected to run for governor in 2014. The good and bad for him is that many of the long-term policy initiatives he's working on now will be far enough along by then to be viewed as either successes or failures. There is a big health-care deadline that could cost states extra money in 2014, for example. "How about that timing?" Brown said.

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