Politicians jockeying for attention are hardly unusual at the Maryland General Assembly. But in this busy election year the one-upmanship has turned the legislative session into a campaign battleground, with candidates making many of the same pitches in hearing rooms that they do out on the trail.
One afternoon last week, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who is seeking to drop the “lieutenant” from his title, talked up his plan to expand pre-kindergarten programs during a packed bill hearing while television cameras rolled.
A fellow Democrat hoping to best him, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, could be found in another hearing room just up the stairs, pushing the creation of a consumer protection office for vote-rich Prince George’s County.
Both Gansler and Brown had offered testimony the day before on a bill to raise the minimum wage. And both plan to be back in the General Assembly next week to share their support for toughening penalties on domestic violence.
With four Maryland statewide offices and all 188 of its legislative seats on the ballot this year, they are not alone in their bids to get noticed. Politics has infused policy debates on issues as varied as decriminalizing marijuana, expanding protections for transgender people and broadening access to pre-K education.
On the campaign trail, all three major Democratic candidates for governor have rolled out plans to expand pre-K education in the coming years. But Brown managed to get the stage to himself on Wednesday to talk up a bill being considered by the House Ways and Means Committee that was sponsored by his current boss, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).
During an appearance promoted by his press office, Brown acknowledged to lawmakers that this year’s bill takes only a “modest” step toward his goal of providing “universal” full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds. But Brown added: “I hope for those of us who have the privilege to be in Annapolis next year that we take a more robust next step.”
At the same hour, Gansler was testifying with Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George’s), who happens to be his running mate in the governor’s race as well as chairman of her county’s delegation in Annapolis. She told the Health and Government Operations Committee that there is “a huge need” for the consumer protection office Gansler is seeking.
Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), the third major candidate for governor, has also sought to leverage the legislative process to draw attention to her campaign.
Last week, she wrote to Brown and Gansler (and sent copies to the media) inviting them to join her in testifying on a bill she is sponsoring to decriminalize marijuana. Under legislation she introduced, those caught using small amounts of the drug would be subject to no more than a $100 civil fine, something akin to a traffic ticket.
Both Brown and Gansler support the idea — but neither agreed to appear alongside her.
Elbowing for attention is hardly confined to the gubernatorial candidates. One of the opening rounds in a battle for a Senate seat representing Montgomery County recently played out in a hearing room in Annapolis.
Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., Maryland’s only openly gay senator, is being challenged in the Democratic primary by Dana Beyer, who would become the first transgender person to serve in the legislature if elected.
During the hearing, Madaleno was championing a bill that would make it illegal to discriminate against transgender people in workplace hiring, housing and public accommodations. He urged his colleagues to help a group of people “live their lives as they feel they are.”
Beyer, the executive director of a transgender rights group, stood in the back of the room, her arms crossed, planning to testify in favor of the bill when given the opportunity.
After a parade of other supporters was called to testify — including Mizeur, in her capacity as a candidate for governor — Beyer was finally summoned forward.
Appearing visibly frustrated, she decided not to testify. Beyer later said that while she has been fighting for years to get such a bill passed in Annapolis, she did not want to participate in “political theater” — a characterization Madaleno strongly disputed.
Even the introduction of legislation has prompted charges of election-year politicking.
Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Baltimore) filed a bill that would make it a crime for a state or local official to direct law enforcement to use resources to personally benefit them.
The legislation was widely assumed to be an attempt to embarrass Del. Jon S. Cardin (D-Baltimore County), a candidate for attorney general. In 2009, Cardin orchestrated a headline-grabbing marriage proposal that involved use of a Baltimore police helicopter and marine unit.
This year, Cardin’s opponents for higher office include Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. Gladden is the committee’s vice chairwoman.
Gladden said her bill wasn’t aimed specifically at Cardin. She has agreed to hold off pushing it until after the election, however.
Asked about the bill, Cardin said he has a full legislative agenda this session and added: “I don’t think that I have time to play old and tired political games.”
Several bills are being pushed by more than one candidate this year.
Both Brown and Gansler, for example, have said their priorities for the session include legislation that allows judges to give tougher sentences for acts of domestic violence committed in front of a child.
Brown is leading the effort to pass a bill sponsored by O’Malley for the first time this year. Gansler is backing — again — similar legislation sponsored by Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery). Simmons has tried for seven years to get his bill passed.
Simmons said the administration had “shown little or no interest” in his bill in past years, but he added he is “grateful” for the attention it is getting now.
“I don’t care whose bill passes, but I would like to at least be acknowledged as the architect,” Simmons said.
Simmons is one of at least 10 House members running for the Senate, and he faces a highly competitive Democratic primary against former Montgomery delegate Cheryl Kagan. She has actively courted women’s groups, among others, to back her candidacy.
Gansler has questioned Brown’s commitment to the legislation, saying his involvement this year appeared to be an attempt to “embellish his credentials.”
“But his presence is certainly welcome,” Gansler added.
Brown said he has been heavily involved in legislation to combat domestic violence since the 2008 murder of a cousin by her estranged boyfriend. Each year since then, Brown said, he has consulted with advocates against domestic violence on how he could be most helpful. This session, they pointed him to this bill, he said.
Jenna Johnson contributed to this story.