ov. Harry Hughes, refusing to back down on his proposal for a new state department of labor, sent his top lieutenants to the General Assembly today to try to persuade skeptical legislators that the agency is indispensable to Maryland's fight against unemployment.

Although legislative leaders have not taken an official position on the Hughes proposal, they hardly have rushed to embrace it. Hughes unveiled plans for the department during last year's electoral campaign, and soon after won a key political endorsement from the state's powerful labor unions. Some legislative leaders have said privately that they object to the measure because they believe it is part of political deal between Hughes and the state's labor movement.

So far Hughes and his aides have been unable to escape the political cloud hanging over the bill and convince legislators that a separate department for jobs and job retraining is necessary.

"I know there is a lot of hostility in there," said Hughes' chief of staff, Ejner J. Johnson, after a hearing today before two Senate committees. "But we want to send a message that this is an important bill. I think a lot of people are still reserving judgment."

Sen. John A. Cade (R-Anne Arundel) delivered the harshest attack on the proposed 13th cabinet-level department, saying that Hughes has failed to investigate other options for improving job placement and retraining programs. Cade also echoed business leaders who say they oppose the department (and its label, the Department of Labor) because they believe it will give labor added leverage in determining state policies on business and employment.

Johnson, who represented Hughes at the hearing along with Human Resources Secretary Ruth Massinga and her predecessor, Kalman R. Hettlemen, said "it is ridiculous" to assume that the department "is going to be a captive of labor."