May 12, 2010

Leaving the Legislature: Carolyn Krysiak

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By Andy Rosen
Andy@MarylandReporter.com

Somebody wants to talk to Del. Carolyn Krysiak as soon as she steps into a Thames Street coffee shop on the Fells Point waterfront she’s represented for two decades.

It’s just a brief conversation, something about e-mails and maybe a meeting. Krysiak,a Southeast Baltimore Democrat who declared last week that she would not seek re-election, says Wednesday was a good day to meet. It’s been a rainy morning, not good for gardening.

She describes her backyard, and the privacy fence she had to install because so many constituents were coming over unannounced – to complain about things like parking tickets. Krysiak is pretty accessible as lawmakers go. She’s unusual in that she lists her home phone number in her official contact information.

“What’s the point in somebody phoning somebody who will then phone me?” she asks, but acknowledges that there are limits. “Sitting in my backyard is a bit much.”

Krysiak, 70, chairs the House Democratic Caucus, and also heads the Unemployment Insurance Subcommittee of the Economic Matters Committee.

Though Krysiak says accessibility is important to her, she said she thinks that closed-door caucus meetings are justified as a way to encourage frank discussion. Lawmakers shouldn’t always have to be on the record, she said.

“You’ve got to have someplace where people can talk freely,” she said. “You have to be very cautious about what you say in an open meeting.”

Krysiak is the product of a long political tradition. Her husband Charles Krysiak was a delegate, too, from 1967 to 1979, then was appointed to the state’s Worker’s Compensation Commission, which he headed from 1987 until 1999. He died in 2004. When they got married, Charles and Carolyn didn’t go on honeymoon. They stayed in Baltimore to help work the polls during a tight congressional race.

The district had changed, both in shape and makeup, by the time Carolyn Krysiak took office in 1991. She had already made one unsuccessful run at the seat in 1986, after a career doing administrative work for organizations including Baltimore City.

Even at that time, she said many people were unprepared for a woman in that neighborhood to seek a seat in the State House.

“Only [now U.S. Sen. Barbara] Mikulski had been able to win, and she was single,” she said. “I was running at this time as a mother of five.”

Some people accused Krysiak of neglecting her family, she said. Because of his job with the commission, Charles couldn’t campaign publicly, but Carolyn said he assured her she’d be effective.

“What he said was ‘You’ll make the guys work harder,’” Krysiak said.

In the House, Krysiak cites consumer protection bills as among her proudest accomplishments: among them, a vehicle lemon law, more coverage for drivers hurt by uninsured motorists and a registry to track homebuilders.

But she acknowledges that 2010 was a difficult session. She was a sponsor on a bill that would have allowed wineries to ship bottles directly to customers, a controversial issue that narrowly failed in the House and was blocked in the Senate. She also had a bill that would have increased death benefits for the dependents of workers killed on the job, if those dependents work part-time.

Krysiak said mothers with some income but without full-time employment can lose access to larger benefit payments.

She said the current law assumes that most mothers are at home full-time.

“Of course, that hasn’t been true for decades,” she said. “A partial dependent is treated very unfairly within the system.”

Krysiak said she’s taken her role as head of the caucus as an opportunity to teach other lawmakers the ropes. Her main message is: “Listen first, and stay in the hearing room.”

She said she realizes that committee hearings, to consider bills before they are rejected or sent to the House floor, can be long, tedious and interfere with schedules. Lawmakers often cycle in and out of the meetings. Krysiak says they are crucial.

“When it comes time to vote, you have to know what you’re voting for,” she said.

Though this year was frustrating on some levels, Krysiak said she had decided to leave long ago, around the beginning of this term in 2007. She said she’s ready to focus more on tasks such as her chairmanship of Baltimore’s Southeast Community Development Corp. and her seat on the board of Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

She said she just didn’t want to tell everybody about her plans.

“I would’ve been able to accomplish nothing. A lot of influence depends on who you are and where you are,” she said. “I felt as though I wanted to be as influential as possible right up to the very last minute, and lame ducks are normally not.”