Gene W. Counihan's initiation as a freshman legislator began early.
Days after his election in Montgomery County, the telephone company asked for a meeting to explain their Annapolis agenda. Then came requests from the chamber of commerce, the medical society, the accountants' association and dozens of other special-interest groups.
By the time he arrived in Annapolis in mid-January, Gene Counihan's calendar for his first month was booked with free cocktail parties, receptions and dinners. On the one occasion when he and a group of fellow freshmen tried to sneak away for a quiet private dinner--at their own expense--a lobbyist picked up their bill before they could get to it.
Such are the trials of a freshman legislator in Annapolis. Lobbyists never leave you alone. Your first efforts to pass bills generally fail. You get the worst offices. Your legs begin to ache after five hours of committee hearings.
The underground tunnels between the various buildings befuddle you. Political opponents take shots at you while you're away. Legislative leaders pressure you to vote occasionally against your conscience. And sometimes it seems like you never will return to the normalcy of family life.
As his first General Assembly session draws to a close Monday, Gene Counihan, 42, a bearded and earnest Montgomery public school vice principal whose looks some have likened to those of Burl Ives, will go home, like his 50 freshmen colleagues, having seen it all.
The seven bills he introduced this year have either been killed or sent to a slow death--summer study. During his first week in Annapolis, Robin Ficker, the incumbent Counihan knocked out of office, broadsided him in a local newspaper column.
Counihan's office has no windows. Most of the suits he brought to Annapolis no longer fit because he has gained 25 pounds. To make it on time to the session he has been living away from his family in a rented town house outside Annapolis. He even missed his wife's birthday.
He felt obliged to follow the leadership and not help initially in the effort to derail a banking deregulation bill that his committee decided to support--after debating it for fewer hours than a bill to establish a one-license plate requirement. He did, however, vote against the banking bill when it came up for final approval.
"This has been the most profound experience of my life--except for the single event experiences like the birth of a child," he said this week, while quickly downing a sub sandwich lunch before a five-hour floor debate on banking. "It's a kind of unreal world."
Counihan, a Democrat who represents outer, western Montgomery, came to Annapolis in January widely known as the "Ficker-kicker." Much to the relief of dozens of legislators, he beat Republican Ficker, the House's best-known gadfly.
Because of Ficker's reputation for sponsoring frivolous bills, Counihan spent much of his first month making sure people knew he was very serious. He introduced few bills. He issued few press releases. He sought a major committee assignment and got it. He carefully read all the bills on which he had to vote.
He also figured out that it was unwise to challenge the leadership, headed by House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore. When another new delegate suggested setting up a freshman caucus like the group that tangled with the leadership four years ago, Counihan was initially interested.
He met with two of the freshman caucus members of four years ago and was told, "If you think you're going to change anything you're smoking something." At the next meeting of the caucus Counihan conveyed the advice he was given and helped convert the caucus into a freshman "group."
"You don't want to be a rabble-rouser," he said at the time, a statement of sentiment that is nearly a theme song for this freshman class. That month Counihan had his first bill hearing before a House committee and testified on it with a prepared statement that he somewhat nervously read. No more prepared statements, he declared afterwards. It made him too nervous.
His own committee, Economic Matters, began holding hearings and in a day or two would cover issues ranging from cemeteries and single license plates to workmen's compensation and unemployment insurance. Sitting for hours as 50 "experts" and others testified on the technicalities of each issue was exhausting and sometimes confusing.
Trying to figure out how his committee worked was even worse. Lobbyists seemed to have more access to committee staff than he did. He had a hard time figuring out in advance what issues or votes would come up each day.
One morning, just hours before the committee was to begin working on legislation to rework the state's unemployment taxes and increase unemployment benefits, Counihan read in the newspapers that Democratic Gov. Harry Hughes and legislative leaders, including Cardin and committee chairman Frederick C. Rummage, had already worked the problem out.
A few days later, Counihan, half kiddingly and half in frustration, said, "There are times that I feel the state could save a lot of money sending about half of us home."
By the second month, Counihan was feeling more comfortable. He was feeling adept at the legislature's complicated telephone system. ("There is never complete mastery, just progressive learning," he said.)
He was learning to trust committee evaluations instead of reading every bill that hit the House floor for a vote. He made his first floor speech--against a budget amendment that would restrict Medicaid funding for abortions.
The dozens of nights he spent in the bar at Fran O'Brien's and at the Hilton had paid off. He now had a group of legislative friends on different committees and in other counties and he was beginning to feel more "plugged in." He still had to read the newspapers, he said, to find out what was going on, but even old-timers sometimes had to do that.
It was at the end of March, with only a few weeks left in the 90-day session, when Counihan ran into his first philosophical dilemma. It occurred over the new lottery that Prince George's County was pushing to raise money and avoid layoffs.
Counihan is opposed to lotteries, which he believes are a regressive form of taxation that milks the poor. He does not approve of using lottery money to balance budgets. So he voted against the measure.
Yet Prince George's was desperate for the money the bill would provide, and Montgomery Executive Charles Gilchrist stepped in to urge support as a "sign of political good will"--or as a way of collecting political chits for the future.
When the measure came up for reconsideration, Counihan followed the lead of his Montgomery colleagues and supported it. "I have always followed the tenet that you negotiate on programs but not on principle," he said afterwards. "Down here I find it hard to separate programs and principle."
By last week, Counihan was feeling almost like an old hand. He had gone against the committee system, slightly, by voting in favor of some consumer amendments to the banking bill that his committee did not back. He even rose to speak in favor of the amendments after his chairman, concerned that the bill would not pass, tapped him on the shoulder to remind him of committee discipline.
And he took it with equanimity when, by last week, all seven of his bills were either killed or sent to summer study, including one that had made it to the floor for adoption and then, because too many questions were being raised, was pulled back at the last minute.
As the final days of the 1983 General Assembly approached, Counihan was pushing his voting lever scores of times a day. But he was also preparing for Tuesday, when life will return to normal.
There will be no more nights at Fran's or days of running between the House floor and his committee room. Instead, he will face such mundane tasks as filing for an income tax extension and unpacking boxes left over from a house move. And after his 90-day leave without pay, he will return to what he calls "real" work as a high school assistant principal or another post for the school system.
"That's kind of weird," he said. "You go back to supervising the cafeteria at Bethesda-Chevy Chase [High School] instead of having 10 guys offering to buy you lunch." But then he added, "Actually, it'll be kind of nice."