A telegram was tacked onto the wall: "To the House Weights and Means Committee" began the plea from a Baltimore County school teacher. "Cutting driver's education from our school curriculum is a form of suicide."
The people at the Ways (of course) and the Means Committee gave that telegram high honors among the odd flurry of amateur lobbying efforts that descended on their office last week as people protested a proposal to eliminate the $5 million state aid grant for drivers' education programs in local public schools.
One Prince George's County high school printed flyers to whip up parental support. The teachers asked the parents to lobby in Annapolis to keep the program in the state budget so that their children could be taught to drive safely.
It worked. One morning last week the phones began ringing at the Annapolis office of the House Ways and Means Committee. Earnest parents and some of their children demanded that House Bill 1663 be killed before more highway motorists are.
But House Bill 1663, it turned out, had nothing to do with driver's education - it is a property tax adjustment bill - and the mistake quickly became the high point of an otherwise routine day.
The parents even thought it was funny. They said the 3 on their flyers should have been a 8. ("Perhaps it was smeared in the printing process," one reflected.) But no one will forget the day the phones rang off the hook for the wrong bill - perhaps doubling the effect of the lobbying effort.
The families of Suitland High School students had stuck their collective toe in the door of decisions without clearly knowing what they were doing and they made an impression. Until the bill is voted on, the exact impression won't be known.But the parents, at least, are starting to feel their oats, plotting other ways to save their school program.
"I don't know what effect this is going to have because I'm so inexperienced but I'm really enthused. We just thought about it one morning and then put the old phone to ringing. Between my wife, Louise, and my daughter and my neighbor, I'd say we touched about 100 people and maybe they reached many more, which means that we could have reached about 6,000 people."
Those are the words of Charles Fowler of Forestville, Md. He is 47 years old, a Republican who has lived all his life in the county and never before showed concern about a piece of legislation. But that smudged flyer did something to him and he feels instrumental in making the recent Thursday such an evenful day for the House Ways and Means Committee.
"The secretaries we talked to were very nice and understand . . . I've never talked to a nicer bunch of people. They listened to our feelings," said Fowler. He said he wants to wants to think about more lobbying.
All the parents from Suitland said they were surprised at how easy it was to lobby, even with the wrong infomation. Within minutes they found the right committee and the right staff member who took their names and telephone numbers and the message they wanted to convey to the elected officials.
Even with no idea of the outcome of their efforts they seemed pleased. They were especially pleased because they thought it would be impossible to find the right committee in the switchboard maze at Annapolis.
Fowler, who works at the Defense Mapping Agency, said the idea that one of his five daughters might not receive driver's education encouraged him to telephone people from Frederick to Bowie to Southern Maryland.
He had also just talked to an old friend in the county - Bill Ammonett, who is now chairman of the County Council - and Fowler said he was moved by his old friend's hard work and determination.
Odds are, of corse, that the lobbying by Suitland High School parents won't directly affect the final outcome of the measure. But that doesn't deter Fowler, who said: "I hear the county is talking about the gun control. That will be my next project."