For the last nine years, Frank Harris backslapped his way through opening day of the Maryland General Assembly, never far from the elbow of the man he called "Boss," Gov. Marvin Mandel.
When Mandel was suspended from office last fall after his sentencing on political corruption charges, it was no surprise that Harris, his confidante and lobbyist, soon would depart.
Today, when Maryland's lawmakers return to work, Harris will be pulling different kinds of levers. At the age of 57, he has returned to the job of his youth, operating a locomotive.
"I probably could've had a job in government," he said aboard his train this week. "But I didn't want to be a paper-shuffling bureaucrat. Here, you're your own guy. Nobody breathes down your neck."
Every three days, Harris climbs into the locomotive of amtrak's "Colonial" passenger train, releases the brake, throws the throttle and begins a four-hour journey from Washington to New York.
When he approaches the old railroad depot in his Cecil County, Md., home town of Perryville, he sounds the whistle twice for the benefit of his wife, who works in a bank below the tracks.
It is a long way from the mahogany-paneled lobbies of the Statehouse in Annapolis where Harris spent the last 19 years as a member of the House of Delegates, clerk of the House an Mandel lobbyist.
Starting in 1969, he helped Mandel work his will on the legislature, gaining the reputation of a persuasive bargainer who often cajoled lawmakers with offer of racetrack passes and promises of political favors.
"We knew what turned people on," he said of Mandel's team of lobbyists, known as the Roadrunners. "Everybody, had a different power switch. If they helped us, we'd tell'em they could count on us.
"Mostly it was just carrying the message," he recalled. "Just telling em what we were for and giaring at 'em from the visitors' gallery during votes. They knew what we had to offer."
The Mandel lobbying team has been disbanded. Acting Gov. Blair Lee III found new government jobs for Ronald Schreiber and Michael Silver. Maurice Wyatt, a skilled political strategist, remains on Lee's staff.
Only Harris was cast out of government. Lee unceremoniously fired him in September, partly because Harris billed the state for a $130 dinner he had with friends at a convention in Ocean City.
Harris also had come under criticism for helping various private interests obtain favorabel treatment from the state -- a practice known as "free-lancing" --and then defending his actions as part of the job of "an old-line ward-heeling politician."
After rejecting offers to be a lobbyist for various business interests, Harris said, he decided to return to the railroad where he began his work life as a laborer when he was 18.
"I was railroader by necessity and a politician by desire," said Harris, a burly man who speaks in countrified slang.
Joining the railroad was an easy decision for the young Harris, the son of a dairy farmer, whose uncles were engineers and passenger conductors on the old Pennsylvania Railroad when Perryville was a depot.
After a short apprenticeship laying railroad ties. Harris was promoted to fireman and shoveled coal to stoke the engines of steam locomotives. He became an enineer at age 24.
Harris continued to work as an engineer during his years as a legislator, when he was known as "Choo Choo," and took an indefinite leave of absence from the railroad after Mandel offered him a place in his administration.
Even in those purely political years, Harris cast himself in the image of a railroader, always wearing his great-uncle's silver Elgin railroad watch and occasionally sporting a red bandanna. While accompanying Mandel on a Metroliner trip to a New York bond, sale, Harris took over controls, of the locomotive for part of the trip.
"Frank was a real railroad freak," recalls Mandel's former chief of staff, Frank A. Defilippo. "Trains are like politics. They got you from here to there."
As his old legislative cronies begin another grueling 90-day session in Annapolis, Harris sits before a black metal control panel, retelling old statehouse stories and plotting his political return.
A run for the State Senate is possible, he said, raising his voice above the sound of a train whistle, or a stab at Cecil County politics. Without doubt, he adds, he will be helping a candidate in the gubernatorial contest.
Meanwhile, Harris is enjoying his return to railroading, a job he says pays while providing him independence and a certain importance.
"Sure I'll miss it (the legislature)," he said. "Being on the top is great. But I'm at the top here too. I'm in charge."