Del. Perry O. Wilkinson Jr. (D-Prince George's) opened his desktop. The books and documents inside were arranged in two neat piles. On top of each pile was a thick, green-jacketed state budget book given to each legislator to study before voting on it.
Wilkinson took out one of the books, closed the desk and drew a red felt-tipped pen from his coat pocket.
He scratched out all the printing on the cover of the book, leafed through it until he got to the index, checked off two items of interest, looked them up, turned to the back cover, wrote his initials. "P.O.W. Jr." on it, and then plunked the book into a nearly trash receptacle.
"This did not just happen," Del. FrnkPesci (D-Prince George's) said to himself. "Perry did not just throw the budget into the trashcan."
Wilkinson proceeded to take the next budget book from his desk. This time he drew lines down the front and back, wrote "1979" on the front cover, asked Del. Gerard Devlin (D-Prince George's) to move a little, and tossed the second budget book into another trash receptacle.
"Um, Perry," said Devlin to Wilkinson in his sharp Boston accept. "That's the budget book you just threw away."
"Yeah," said Wilkinson to Devlin. "I just reviewed it."
Pesci grimaced. Devlin shook his head and smiled Wilkinson retrieved the two budget books from the waste baskets.
Perry O. Wilkinson Jr., baby-faced at age 39, son of a former speaker of the House, heir to a lucrative insurance enterprise, has done many peculiar things during his first term in the Maryland House of Delegates. Some delegates, like Devlin, smile at his quirks and peccadilloes.
Others, like Pesci, grimace with embarrassment and anger at the mention of his name. To them, Wilkinson's unusual work habits reflect something more serious - a lack of interest in the job that his constituents in the New Carrollton-Lanham district expect him to do.
"I don't think it's funny," said one colleague from Prince George's, who asked not to be identified. "I've never seen Perry do anything but water his plants. He rarely talks at delegation meetings. He doesn't show up for anything before 10 o'clock. He doesn't attend many constituent meetings back in his district. I think he's having a wonderful time, but it gets very irritating for the rest of us who are working so hard. We would like to know what it is that he does."
There is no doubt that Wilkinson is always doing something - physically. He is perhaps the most fidgety politician to ever grace the halls of the State House. The budget book incident is part of an almost daily routine. Here, for example, is a detailed description of Wilkinson on the job in a Feb. 23 session of the House Economic Matters Committee:
His tie loosened. His suit coat sleeves are pushed midway up his arms. He is chewing gum. He folds a paper in half, straightens his glasses, takes them off, blows on both lenses, looks at another paper, folds it in half, takes both papers and rips them in half and throws them into the waste basket. He pulls out his black felt-tipped pen, examines it, writes something, crosses it out, writes something else, crosses it out, folds the paper and stuffs it into a folder.
He opens his desk, straightens the papers inside, pushes up his sport coat sleeves again, looks at the committee witness for two seconds, folds another paper, works out a kink in his neck, pulls an envelope out of his pocket, rips it in half, throws it away, looks at his book of House bills, lip-reads a bill to himself using hand gestures to dramatize certain points.
An aide brings a Coke and club sandwich wrapped in tinfoil to his desk. He takes a bite, moves his bill book around, sticks his elbow into the sandwich, opens the coke can, takes a swig and then points to Del. Charles Doctor when the chairman of the commitee asks if there are any more questions of the witness.
There are but four, one-line items in The Washington Post library about Perry O. Wilkinson Jr., each of them recounting the number of votes he got in the 1974 primary and general elections. His public life has been played out in virtual silence.
During the 1975 legislative session, Wilkinson's first, he had his name put on 31 bills. In every case he was not among the chief sponsors of the measure, but rather added his name to a proposal drawn up and pushed by another delegate. He was, however, the chief sponsor of five resolutions - three honoring Eagle Scouts, one offering sympathy to the family of a deceased constituent, and a final one taking note of a young man who had made the All-Met high school boys basketball team.
His bill-making in 1976 was nearly identical to the year before. This time Wilkinson put his name on 33 measures drawn up by other delegates and pushed by himself resolutions honoring a 91-year-old, a probation officer, and the Parkdale Class AA basketball champions.
In preparation for his third session, Wilkinson sold the lucrative insurance business he had inherited from his father, the Perry O. Wilkinson Insurance Agency. "The legislature had become a full-time job for me," Wilkinson explained in a recent interview." I was working 50 or 60 hours a week in insurance and then putting in another 50 or 60 up here. It was inhuman."
With his attention firmly focused on Annapolis, Wilkinson in 1977 introduced 20 bills. Eighteen of them were killed at their first stop in the legislative process, receiving unfavorable reports in committee. The other two became law - one setting up a state commission on condoniniums (Wilkinson owns one in Ocean City), the other allowing for property tax assessment hearings on Saturdays and evenings.
Wilkinson got off to a slow start in this, the final year of his first term. He took a four-week vacation in the fall, missing three important voting sessions of the County Affairs Committee, which makes preliminary by the Prince George's delegation. "It was," said Wilkinson, "my first vacation in five years."
Then, at the start of the session in January, Wilkinson was bed-ridden for nearly two weeks by what he called the Texas flu. That illness was his first, he said, since the Hong Kong flu slowed him down back in 1958. As a result of the vacation and the flu, Wilkinson was able to get his name on only eight bills for the 1978 session. He is the chief sponsor on one - a measure that would give the state police a raise.
Legislators are not judged by the number of bills they sponsor.
"But most of us . . . have a few areas we concentrate on and try to improve the state law," said another Prince George's delegate. "Perry hasn't even done that."
In a recent interview in his second floor office at the House office building, the American and Maryland flags hanging behind his desk, a photograph of his father leading the House placed on a side wall, Wilkinson was asked about such criticisms.
Question: When you got to Annapolis, what were your goals? What did you want to accomplish here? What motivated you to want to be in the House of Delegates?
Answer: (Twenty second pause). I don't follow you. Could you define that question?
Question: What bills have caught your interest? What did you want to work on here?
Answer: State police pay is one of my interests. I got the bill in just last Friday (Feb. 24, the last day to introduce bills in this sesion). Joe Edwards, a state trooper before my Dad got him into the insurance busines, used to drive Dad around when he was Speaker. he got something like $4,200 back in those days.I didn't think it was right - and I still don't - that the top law enforcement men in the state get lower salaries than the county police.
Handicapped children is another. (The bill file shows no bills introduced by Wilkinson on this subject).
Wilkinson said he works in his own style and does not want to be compared to any of his colleagues. "I could be a Blumenthal (Del. Charles Blumenthal) - oh, I hate to run other people down - but I don't think you're effective that way. You're effective one-on-one, same as in the delegation meetings.
"Like last Friday morning at - well, I could call it 8 o'clock, you were there - it got underway at 8:20. Same thing here. You can get up and play to the press, which I know you guys like. I'm not like that. I've only taken the House floor eight times in my four years here. I've only spoken eight times.
But I've been bvery effective. When some of those other guys get up to speak you start working at your desk."
He works at his desks - the one on the House floor and the one in his office - some "60 or 70 hours a week," Wilkinson said. Many of his collegues do say that Wilkinson is usually still in his office when they leave at night, whether the hour is 9 p.m. or midnight.
"I read the mailgrams, the telegrams, letters," said Wilkinson. "I write letters out in longhand for the secretary to type up. I arrange things to be filed. I also do some personal things, call Patty (his fiance) or my mother and father. Some of this stuff, of course, kachoom, right into the waste basket. But I answer most of the letters because in November when I ask for someone's vote they'll say, 'Where's my letter?'"
"Perry O. Perry O." Perry O. Wilkinson Jr. is walking through the room that separates the front desk from the first floor bar at the Annapolis Hilton. He is greeted with warm shouts of camaradie from Joe Bonvegna and John Linz, who are, respectively, a bulky, cigar-smoking state senator and a reed-thin delegate from the 46th District in Baltimore City.
Bonvegna and Linz camp out in the Hilton almost every night from January to April. So does "Perry O." who rents a room in the hotel during the legislative session. "Perry O," said Linz, "represents the people. He's a regular guy."
Wilkinson, more than most of the delegates from suburban Washington, fits in with the "regular guy" legislators from Baltimore. Although he drinks nothing stronger than a Coke, his friendly, unimposing nature makes him a good fellow to have at the table at the Hilton or up the street at Fran O'Brien's, another Annapolis hangout. Like many of the Baltimoreans, Wilkinson is nore discursive and entrgetic in places of that nature than on the House floor.
"Perry has an old-fashioned style," said Devlin, who also gets along with the Baltimore politicians. "He patterns himself after his father, I guess. But there was a different conception of a legislator back then than there is now.
"The conception now seems to be that a good legislator is someone who runs around from committee to committee, presenting all kinds of bills tht eventually get smashed because they didn't go through the system. Perry has a go-along-to-get-along philosophy. He's very quiet, but he knows where he wants to be on legislation."
Paul Weisengoff, chairman of the Baltimore delegation, offered a similar appraisal. "Perry's coming along. He's matured over the four years. He knows how to vote."
Many of Wilkinson's critics contend that the reason Devlin and Weisengoff praise him is precisely because of his knowledge on "how to vote." Devlin and Weisengoff think of themselves as vote-traders," said one Prince George's delegate. "A guy like Perry is the perfect guy to have around for them. He'll basically do what they tell him.
Royal Hart, the lobbyist for the Prince George's County government in Annapolis, put virtually the same thought into different words. "Perry generally supports the county's position," said Hart, "when we can get him to the meetings on time."