With 20 minutes left in Maryland's 1999 General Assembly session, Sen. Ida G. Ruben was in a panic.
The Montgomery County Democrat had been waiting all day for an obscure bill concerning the pensions of local teachers to reach the Senate floor. It would surely pass, she thought, but something--or someone--was holding it back.
"I was so incensed," she said. "This bill was being killed behind the scenes, and I finally just lost it. I decided I wasn't going to be jerked around any more."
Ruben shrieked at Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), stormed to the front of the room and demanded her bill be put to a vote. And it worked. During the most hectic final moments of the session, the Senate called roll on a local bill that few other senators could have cared much about. Seconds before the final gavel came down, it passed.
In many ways, the whole scene was as distinctively Ida as the trademark twist of blond hair she wears perched in a bun atop her head. Although her tenacious approach hasn't always won her allies, it has been effective enough that, come January, Ruben, 70, will ascend to the position of president pro tem.
The largely ceremonial post, which some legislators equated to lieutenant governor, places her second in command of the Senate, and carries with it an opportunity to elevate Montgomery's profile in the coming legislative session.
"The job gives her huge opportunities," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore). "It's the kind of position that is what you make of it. But certainly, it's a bully pulpit. It's an opportunity to get issues she cares about in front of the public."
Ruben replaces Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. (D-Baltimore County), who relinquished the title as part of a deal he made to move off the Judicial Proceedings Committee. He will take the newly coined title of president pro tem emeritus.
Ruben said she thought long and hard about accepting the new job, because it means giving up her position as vice chair of the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee and chair of a subcommittee on transportation and public safety. Those jobs will be filled by another Montgomery legislator, Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D).
"It was a hard choice to make, but what convinced me was that the county is still protected," Ruben said.
Ruben joined the legislature in 1975 after winning a seat held by her husband, L. Leonard Ruben, who had left to take a judgeship. She has spent much of her legislative career focusing on issues dear to her commuting constituents, from creating incentives for car-poolers to forcing trucks to cover their payloads so pebbles don't tumble onto the windshields of unsuspecting drivers.
But it is money, more than anything else, that has distinguished Ruben as one of the most aggressively parochial legislators. As vice chair of the committee overseeing the budget, she has had a key role in corralling state funds for her constituents.
"I would call her the 24-hour sentinel for Montgomery County," said County Council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), a longtime friend of Ruben's. "No opportunity for our county falls through the cracks."
Outside Montgomery County, that single-minded approach occasionally has backfired. In 1992, when Ruben helped knock down a $430 million tax bill, she said she was holding out for an additional $5 million to $10 million in state education aid for her county. But the $254 million compromise deal that followed left a smaller pot of money for everyone, including Montgomery County.
"Ida can't add," is what one of her fellow legislators said at the time. But at home, people loved it, saying she stood up for her county.
Sen. Robert R. Neall (D-Anne Arundel), who serves with Ruben on the budget committee, said her advocacy can work well in some instances and hurt in others.
"At times, she wears her feelings on her sleeve," Neall said. "Sometimes being a good poker player is a good job skill."
Ruben said that if some view her style as a minus, she can accept it.
"That may be true, but I tell the truth," she said. "I say what I think. I argue my points. I don't sneak behind anyone's back. And I can look at my self in the mirror the next day."
CAPTION: Sen. Ida G. Ruben, who said she thought long and hard about taking the president pro tem position, will take that over that role in January.