Every Friday morning from January to April the 24 members of the Maryland House of Delegates from Prince George's gather around an E-shaped arrangement of tables on the second floor of the House office building to consider bills that deal solely with matters in the home county.
The delegation meeting, because of its provincial nature, is often considered a necessary but innocuous sideshow to the grand presentation of committee hearings, floor sessions and press conferences that dominate the three-month session of the General Assembly.
Sometimes, however, these weekly meetings illustrate the dynamics of the political process. Yesterday was one of those times.
The delegation, facing one of the weightiest local issues of the session, balked. Before them was a bill to require county public school teachers to pay dues to their union, creating what is known as an "agency shop." This is a plum normally negotiated, not legislated, and the lobbying surrounding it befited the importance of the issue.
The delegates handled the pressure by approving two bills; one that would mandate the agency shop by law, the other would merely direct the county school board to negotiate the issue at the bargaining table.
Both were sent to a House committee where delegates who have little interest in Prince George's affairs will decide which, if either, measure should become law. "It's an intriguing idea to me to send a cliffhanger like this to someone else to struggle with," said Del. Robert Redding, who voted for both bills.
Although the two bills affect a small percentage of the nearly 700,000 county residents (the 7,900 school teachers, an estimated 900 of whom do not pay dues to the Prince George's County Educators Association), the agency shop question was the most talked about, lobbied for, lobbied against issue the delegates have confronted this year.
Retribution, jealousy, election - year jockeying, special interest pressure - all joined basic philosophical conviction as apparant factors in the delegation's handling of an issue that Del. Lorraine Sheehan said was "loaded with behind-the-scences ramifications."
Del. Frank Pesci, sponsor of the school board-supported bill that would make agency shop a negotiatable issue, said the interest in the bills was "immense." "You could say this is this year's convention center," said Pesci, in reference to a controversial and unsuccessful attempt to get state-funding for a convention center in Prince George's County last year.
The agency shop bill, if passed by the General Assembly, would be a major victory for the PGCEA and its ambitious president, Toby Rich, who has been attempting to make the association a powerful interest group that can influence legislation and elections.
The bill's passage would also serve to the advantage of Del. Fred Rummage, who is both of this all-Democrat delegation and executive director of the PGCEA. Rummage, according to his colleages, has removed himself from the agency shop issue, refusing to discuss it or to chair meetings where it is being discussed. "But," note Pesci, "it's impossible for him to disclaim the fact that he has a vital interest in it."
For most of this week, supporters of both bills took turns calling it a "toss up," with Rich saying he believed he had a majority for the mandate measure and Pesci saying much the same about his bill. The legislative lobbyist for the school board shadowed Rich through the corridors of the House office building in search of votes.
They encountered five or six delegates who were uncommitted. Del. Kay Bienen was won over to the PGCEA-endorsed bill when she was allowed to amend it so it would not affect non dues paying teachers currently under contract. Del. John Wolfgang, who once said he was opposed to the agency shop concept, joined Pesci's side after deciding that one or the other of the two bills would pass and he might be the only delegate voting against both of them.
Del. B.W. (Mike) Donovan, found nothing intriguing about the agency shop bills from the moment he heard about them. "It's not a big issue for the average citizen," he would say when asked how he would vote. But it when asked how he would vote. But it was, he would admit, a fairly nettle-some issue for him.
One problem for Donovan was that Sheehan was chief sponsor of the bill that mandated an agency shop. Donovan and Sheehan both represent the 26th district and both would like to succeed gubernatorial candidate Steny Hoyer as the district's senator.
"The PGCEA (which lobbied for Sheehan's bill) is becoming very active politically and Mike knows it," said Sheehan. "My reading of him was that he didn't like the bill, but couldn't afford to vote against it and risk losing the association's support."
Donovan, before the vote, discounted that argument, but would not reveal his preference. "I'm just going to wait and see how the delegation feels," he said. "I'll get a sense of hte delegation before deciding which way to go. There's no use fighting the sense of the delegation."
He stuck to that position to the end. When Sheehan's bill came up for a vote yesterday, Donovan "passed" until the required 13 "ayes" had been utered, then added his name to the majority.
Leo Green, a maverick delegate from Bowie who was endorsed by the teachers but not by the Democratic party organization in the 1974 election, found himself in the same box as Donovan.
"I'm waiting for the word," said Green the night before the vote. When asked what word he was waiting for , Green said he wanted to know how County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr. and several council members felt about the two bills. The word came back, as one delegate put it, that "the county has reiterated its position that it has no position." Green decided to abstain.