Robert J. Fuller says he should have died years ago.
He fought fires in Prince George's County for two decades and survived two liver transplants. His bald spot is bandaged and flecked with skin cancer scars. Two years ago, he lost his voice to throat cancer.
But an artificial larynx has not stopped the hard-nosed, sometimes profane, Charles County commissioner from speaking up. Before he retires from the board next year, Fuller, 62, plans to take on what once was Southern Maryland's premier cash crop.
Fuller wants to ban smoking in the restaurants and taverns of a region that produced about 80 percent of the state's tobacco.
"God wants me to help stop others from making the same mistakes," Fuller said, in the robotic voice of a vibrating device that has replaced his own.
"Why else would I still be here?"
Seven states and 182 localities, including California, New York, Delaware and Montgomery County, insist on smoke-free bars and restaurants. The D.C. Council has been debating a smoking ban, with a vote expected in the fall.
Charles County has taken tentative steps in that direction. Commissioners banned smoking last year in county parks within 100 yards of "organized activities." That means it's off-limits near softball games but not on the county golf course.
Fuller's attempt last year at a comprehensive ban fizzled in the face of opposition from commissioners concerned about the viability of bars and charitable organizations that allow smoking during fundraising bingo games.
But as Fuller prepares to leave office after 15 years, his crusade has become more personal -- and urgent.
The Prince George's native was a chain-smoking, beer-drinking firefighter who spent hours swapping stories and listening to Glenn Miller on the jukebox at the Friendly Inn tavern in Tuxedo. Then, the hard-charging union president with a ruddy complexion and receding hairline chased adversity.
"I took my men through hell, and nothing slowed me down," Fuller said. He won the department's highest honor, for pulling a truck driver from an overturned tanker that had spilled 8,000 gallons of gas on Route 50 during rush hour.
"We should have kept everyone back and let everything blow, but that's not my nature."
Four years ago, Fuller was forced to slow down. Doctors gave him 18 months to live unless he got a new liver. He quit smoking, quit drinking and waited.
The first new liver quit an hour after his transplant. Fuller was kept alive from a Thursday to a Sunday until doctors came up with a new liver, this one from an 18-year-old woman killed in a car accident. Fuller did not wake up for 47 days.
When he emerged from a coma and returned to Waldorf with his wife, Lucille, Fuller said everyone called him "the miracle." Only two years later, he found he had throat cancer.
Fuller now breathes through a hole in his neck. He has lost his sense of smell and taste and most of his facial hair because of radiation treatments.
What he has not lost is his blunt style. Standing before a health class last week for Charles County teenagers caught smoking, Fuller warned, "If you don't quit, you'll end up like me with this stupid, damn thing held up to your neck and people can hardly understand you.''
Fuller said he inherited his boldness from his mother, who was a single mom working in the Washington Navy Yard when he was born during World War II. Early on, Fuller attended Catholic schools. He served as an altar boy and briefly considered becoming a priest. When he became ill, religion took on new meaning.
"I owe God something for all He's done for me," he said.
As a school board member in the 1980s and later a commissioner, Fuller relied on the same mix of humor and unflinching advocacy he used as a union chief to negotiate on behalf of 450 rank-and-file members.
"He had the nerve to do what needed to be done" and "an ability to upset the status quo, but everyone still liked him," said retired Prince George's division commander Ed Chaney, who also was Fuller's classmate at Bladensburg High School.
Fuller plans to introduce a comprehensive smoking ban next month, arguing that it is unfair to subject the public to secondhand smoke. The Democrat's unlikely ally could be an outspoken Republican colleague, Al Smith, with whom he has clashed.
During a televised public meeting in April, for instance, Fuller slipped into profanity in telling Smith he erred in proposing a property tax break for seniors that would not have included an income requirement.
Not to worry, Smith said in an interview last week. He admires Fuller for being "an old salt from the good old days. He's not a guy that puts his little finger up and tests which way the wind is blowing."
Smith said Fuller can count on him to support a smoking ban for restaurants, but he believes the county is not ready for a sweeping policy that would include bars.
"It's a change in the way of life, a change in the culture, a change in our history, and I think people are seeing it," Smith said. "I want to take it a step at a time."
State Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), who voted against a statewide ban proposed in Annapolis, echoed those concerns. A former Charles County Commission president, Middleton said such a ban could be even more difficult to pass at the local level, where business owners could argue that customers would flee to a county that allows smoking.
Still, Middleton is not counting Fuller out.
"Given his health condition and given that he's leaving, I think the board will be sensitive to that," he said. "Its chances are the best it will ever be."