At the end of a year-long search for legislative remedies to Anne Arundel County's shortage of affordable housing, County Council member Maureen Lamb watched in dismay this fall as proposal after proposal to cut housing costs broke apart on a bulkhead of political opposition.
When a controversial package of bills aimed at opening up the county to new, less costly mobile home development was voted down in October by four of the seven council members, Lamb publicly chastised her colleagues.
"I'm really disappointed for all the people in Anne Arundel County. I think you've really let them down," she told them, her voice cracking.
Council members looked uncomfortably into their laps as they braced themselves for a lecture from the 62-year-old former school board member who wears her causes like armor into battle. Maureen Lamb was on a crusade.
Her outspoken, "right is right" nature has earned Lamb, an Annapolis Democrat, the label of council activist and thrown her into one controversy after another in the past year. Lamb fears being labeled a "goody-goody," but says she has no plans to be quiet on issues she deems important to county residents. She's likely to continue to shake up an otherwise sedate council.
Lamb came to the County Council in December 1982 after eight years on the Board of Education. She began working as a volunteer in county schools in the 1960s after returning to Annapolis from a worldwide tour as a Navy officer's wife. She was appointed to the school board in 1974.
Lamb said her main reason for moving from the school board to the council was to have a stronger hold on the education budget's purse strings; but her interests quickly encompassed a range of housing, mental health and social issues.
Lamb's effort to clear the way for mobile homes is reminiscent of her school board campaigns to set up volunteer reading programs in county schools and build public swimming pools. She's found affordable housing a cause worth fighting for. She said she will introduce additional housing bills this month and plans to educate the public about mobile homes, with an eye to future legislation.
It has been over a decade since Lamb's desire to do the right thing first pushed her onto the school board, but experience has tempered her little, say friends and colleagues who have observed her career. To some, she's a Don Quixote tilting at windmills. To others, she is a courageous voice in the wilderness.
"She doesn't think about politics," said County Executive James Lighthizer. "She asks: 'Is it right or is it wrong?' Sometimes it hurts her." Lighthizer is an admirer and sometimes an adversary who opposed most of the housing legislation Lamb proposed last year.
"Her biggest strength is her decency. There's nobody like her out there in politics in this county," he added.
Lamb prides herself on her inattention to politics. She prefers to choose her battles on their merits, not on whether they will get her reelected to a second four-year term in 1986, she says. She frequently finds herself on the losing side of an issue, as she did on the mobile home legislation last year.
"I may run again, but during the time I'm sitting here, I'm not going to think about whether I'll get elected again," she said. "It's too hard to think objectively what's the best thing if you're always counting votes and you're too careful."
In addition to widespread criticism of the six affordable housing bills she sponsored or cosponsored, Lamb also was attacked during last year's debate over how council members should be elected. Currently, council members are nominated by district and elected at large. A proponent of electing members at large, she sponsored a ballot question to nominate and elect at large after a separate question was placed on the ballot by petition to have members elected only by their individual districts. Lamb was criticized for "muddying" the issue by The Capital, the local newspaper, and her measure was defeated.
Unlike the prototypical political loner, however, Lamb is not perceived by peers and other observers to be a "grandstander" out for glory.
"While people can sometimes fault how she does it, no one can fault her objective," said Robert Agee, Lighthizer's top aide who is often a liaison between council members and the executive.
But Lamb occasionally draws criticism from fellow council members who say she takes on too many causes and, as a result, is not well-versed in any.
"She's just so emotionally involved in it," said council member Ted Sophocleus, (D-Linthicum). "She jumps in sometimes without sufficient research."
She also tends to be blinded by the righteousness of her convictions, said some observers.
In the case of the mobile home legislation, she pushed ahead despite warnings from her constituents and colleagues that it was doomed. "She felt they didn't understand what she was saying. If they understood, they wouldn't object," recalled Willie Q. McManus, former president of the Annapolis Neck Federation, an organization of community associations in Lamb's district.
Still, McManus and others find Lamb to be open to discussion and concerned about her district's needs. "I think she's been a very effective advocate for the city with the county executive and the council," said Annapolis Mayor Richard L. Hillman, a Republican who has known Lamb since his youth.
When asked what propels her, Lamb recalls the Protestant work ethic and empathy for others learned during her own Depression-era childhood and a lesson she taught her four now-grown sons and daughters:
"I've raised them saying, 'You have an obligation to society. You have an obligation to put back more into society than you take out. If you don't, there's nothing left for your children.' "