Sen. Joseph Curran Jr. (D-Baltimore) has been wiating three years to get a stiff handgun penalty bill to the floor of the Maryland Senate. This year, for the first time, the bill was voted out of committee, but it was held up by a Senate filibuster.
Curran's judicial proceedings committee likewise voted out a bill to raise the state's drinking age to 21. That bill too was stalled in the pipeline, while senators last week were forced to spend days and a few evenings listening to the long-winded ramblings of their colleagues from Prince George's.
Near the half-way point of this year's General Assembly session, earlier characterized by the number of weighty issues facing election-year lawmakers, dozens of bills already passed out of committees were temporarily hijacked last week and the beginning of this week by the Senate's oldest tradition: the right of any Senator to talk for as long as he chooses, unless two-thirds of his colleagues vote to quiet him.
Perhaps no one is more mindful of the time taken from the Senate's crowded calendar than Senate President James Clark Jr. (D-Howard), who, it is fair to say, started the whole mess. It was Clark's attempt to tamper with Gov. Harry Hughes' redistricting map that launched the Prince George's senators into their talkathon.
Clark, a member of the redistricting commission that approved a plan Hughes later altered, wanted to keep the unincorporated community of Columbia in one legislative district. Columbia, a progressive, politically active community, has been described as the place where Montgomery County sends all of its crazies, and Clark had more than a passing interest in keeping it whole--and out of his own settled, more rural Howard County district.
Late Monday night, while Sen. Tommie Broadwater Jr. (D-Prince George's) droned on about "fairness" and "equal representation" to a less-than-captive, thoroughly bored audience, Clark was overheard to mumble to a colleague, "I'm a victim of my own success. I hate to waste time."
"He (Clark) made a delegation out of us," said Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), chairman of the county senate delegation. Miller said that before Clark proposed changing the redistricting lines, threatening the Prince George's legislative clout, the county's senators were never united on anything. Now, he said, "we're together on this."
Meanwhile, on the floor, Broadwater talked on, sometimes humorously, sometimes caustically, sometimes just straining for something to say. "We've got in the Senate," he said, "the black minority, the female minority, the Republican minority. We minorities should stick together.
"We have sympathy for Howard County and the splitting of Columbia," Broadwater said, with no one listening. "But when you get right down to it, it's either them or us, and us is going to try to win."
First there was "The New Nixon," then this year "The New Harry Hughes." Now Baltimore's Sen. Julian L. Lapides, whose bill sponsorship list includes a measure to regulate waterbeds, is trying to introduce onto the statehouse scene "A New Julian Lapides."
"I've got to get more serious," Lapides said. "I was getting to be known as the Ficker of the Senate for introducing too many Ficker bills."
The "Ficker" that Lapides referred to is maverick Del. Robin Ficker (R-Montgomery), whose own list includes a bill to prohibit local governments from restricting video games in commercial areas.
Lapides said he became more concerned about his image after the hearings on the waterbed bill, when he told reporters he only introduced it at the request of a friend he met at a party. "After two martinis it sounded pretty good," he said. "It was a hell of a party."
Now Lapides is trying to look more serious. "There's a fine line between Lapides and Ficker, and I want to make sure it stays well-defined." He pointed out that he recently abandoned his planned slapstick presentation to a Senate committee on his bill requiring restaurants to provide separate checks upon request. He opted for more serious testimony, but did manage to include a poem.
What brought about the change of heart? A new pollster, perhaps? Or a slick Madison Avenue image-maker? Lapides conceded, "My wife told me I was starting to look irresponsible." Behind every successful politician, it is said . . . .