Veteran legislators: Long-time lawmakers say there’s still much to do

By Len Lazarick

They’re 70 years old and older, they’ve served two decades or more in the Maryland General Assembly, and they’re not about to retire.

In fact, while we’ve written about a few delegates and senators who are not seeking re-election, they are more the exception than the rule.

The longest-serving veterans are hanging in there, and today we start a series of profiles about several of them.

“Why would I step down when I’m in a position of power?” asked Del. Sheila Hixson, 77, the long-time chair of the House Ways and Means Committee who came to Annapolis 34 years ago. “The state’s in a difficult financial situation, and I want to help.”

We’ve already written about two Senate veterans in their seventies who are being challenged in Democratic primaries – Sens. Nathaniel Exum, D-Prince George, and Jennie Forehand, D-Montgomery. Most of the other long-time legislators we’ve talked to also face challenges in their party primaries, in the general election or in both.

The veterans are fighting to hold on. They said they’ve accomplished much, and still have a lot to do.

“I’m in the middle of it,” said Sen. Delores Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat. “We are being productive. There is work that needs to be done. So I say, ‘Why not I?’ ”

“I said many years ago that when the people say, ‘John, you’ve been there too long. You’ve done your job. We will not vote for you,’ then it is time for me to go,” said Del. Johnny Wood, D-St. Mary’s County. “The people will tell you when it’s time to go.”

Wood and Del. Sonny Minnick of Dundalk said they need to be a voice of  conservative pro-business Democrats.

“Nowadays, I feel like there are only a few of us conservative Democrats left in the House,” Minnick said. “I get up sometimes and talk about businesses, and I see a bunch of blank faces. It’s in one ear and out the other.”

No financial gain in staying

There’s no financial gain for these legislators to stay – most have maxed out on their pensions after 22 years, and would get a pension of two-thirds of the $43,500 they’re making now as part-time lawmakers if they retired.

Most describe vast changes since they joined the Assembly – more staff, more office space, and vastly more partisanship and less collaboration than when they first came to Annapolis. But they say they still enjoy the work and speaking for their communities.

“I enjoy representing my district and being in a position where I am helping people,” said Sen. Norman Stone, the Dundalk Democrat. After 48 years, is the longest serving member of the Maryland General Assembly. “I enjoy sponsoring and supporting laws that improve our way of living,” Stone said.

“I love the legislature,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Vallario, who was attacked from many sides this year about how he runs his committee. “The legislative process is fascinating and I feel like I’ve got a lot of offer to help the people.”

But many of their opponents believe it’s a time for a change in Annapolis. However they express it in their campaign literature and candidates forums, they suggest that their districts need someone with more energy (that is, younger) and fresh ideas.

Throwing Momma from the train

“We need new blood,” said Ed Priola, a Republican delegate candidate in Howard County’s District 13. “We have a ruling class.”

Priola was the field director for U.S. Term Limits, an organization that spearheaded term-limits for state legislatures and Congress around the nation during the 1990s. Priola has pledged to serve just two-terms and said he’s putting together a group of candidates that will come out after the primary in support of a two-term limit in the Maryland Constitution. He calls his proposal “term out;”a lawmaker could serve more than two four-year terms if he or she sat out one term.

“It’s a matter of balance,” he said. He wants legislators “to remember who brings them to the dance.”

Fifteen states now have term limits for legislators ranging from 6 to 12 years. Most of those were passed from 1990 to 1996 at the height of the term-limits movement.

Two states, Idaho and Utah, have repealed the term limits enacted at that time.

“As term limits begin to take effect, many of their impacts on the legislative institution are negative,” said the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Term-limits have no appeal to the current leadership of the House of Delegates and Maryland Senate. Almost all of the Democratic legislative leaders have held their seats for four-terms or more.

Lawmakers who have experienced term limits said they produce a loss of institutional knowledge and perspective on the long-term impact of legislation.

“You can’t throw Momma from the train,” said Del. Hattie Harrison, chair of the Rules Committee for 31 years who is seeking her 10th term. “Momma’s still got too much to do.”

Harrison does not list her birth date in her official biography, but Wikipedia and other sources say she is 82. She would likely be the oldest member of the General Assembly if re-elected this year.

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