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February 25, 2003

General Assembly Journal - Part 9

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Tuesday February 11th - Dinner with the Speaker/Committee Work

Last week, the secretary to Delegate Mike Busch (D., Anne Arundel), the Speaker of the House, called to invite me to dinner with the Speaker. Lest you mistakenly think I've become more important than I actually am, this invitation was extended to several other freshmen as well.

Turns out that the Speaker is continuing a tradition of taking the freshmen out to dinner in small groups. Speaker Busch has more of a challenge than his predecessor, Casper Taylor, did. The class of 2003 brought a higher number of rookies to Annapolis, so Speaker Busch has several nights set aside to dine with the new faces.

Our dinner location was O'Brien's, a well-known watering hole and restaurant. This is one of those places of legend, a smoke-filled pub with a long bar that dominates the front of the building.

According to folks that have been here for years, this place used to be filled with lobbyists and legislators. Depending on where you stood in the room determined which lobbyist's tab your drink was added to. Along the top of the bar and strategically placed around the room are photos of high-profile sports and political figures.

Speaker Busch proudly pointed out his picture. He was a legendary running back in high school and college. Delegate Eric Bromwell, a freshman Democrat from Baltimore County, took me across the room to show me a picture of Sen. John Astle, taken during his days as a soldier in Vietnam. I actually have a connection to Senator Astle.

Several years ago, we invited him to Brunswick to serve as our keynote speaker at the annual Veterans Day Parade. He gave a stirring talk, and, through his words, I could see a little of the horrors faced by a young man in a strange place. That picture at O'Briens, reflecting a much younger man, his faced not yet etched by wrinkles, and sporting a grand handlebar mustache, should have been in Time or Life magazine.

After the freshmen had all assembled in the bar, Speaker Busch strode in, accompanied by his "executive" protection. I often wonder what this aspect of life must be like for these guys. Governor Robert Ehrlich, Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, and Speaker Busch are each assigned a plainclothes state trooper who acts as their driver and bodyguard. Everywhere these guys go, you'll spot their trooper. The little ear bud speaker and the tendency to whisper into their sleeve is the surefire giveaway. I wonder if the presence of the trooper takes some getting used to.

(Now that I spend a lot of time driving between Brunswick and Annapolis, I realize how much I enjoy driving. The peace and solace on these drives gives me a lot of time to think, to plan, and to reflect on how lucky I am. Not to mention the music. I fill a CD holder with everything from old Chicago blues records to heavy metal for the drive.)

Our state leaders don't drive, they ride in the back of a police-package Ford Crown Victoria or Ford Expedition. The big perk is parking as all three have spots reserved right in front of the State House.

Well, back to O'Brien's on Main Street. We were escorted upstairs and seated in a large private dining room. Dinner (paid for by the Speaker) offered several menu choices. New York strip steak, broiled rockfish, and chicken Chesapeake (chicken breast topped with a creamy crab sauce), with the steak appearing to be the bi-partisan favorite.

Having read my stuff here for a few weeks, it shouldn't surprise you that I missed some table conversation due to my people-watching habit. The Speaker brought his senior staff along with him.

The Speaker's chief of staff, Tom Lewis, is a relative old-timer. Tom was also former Speaker Casper Taylor's staff director, so he knows the ropes very well. He is also adept at health policy and has given testimony in my Health Committee on behalf of the Speaker's bills.

The Speaker sat at my table for dinner but had his staff spread around, with one person at every table. My guess is that he just wanted to make sure we were making the transition from citizen to citizen-legislator with a minimum of trauma. He asked questions about our families, our background, and why we ran for delegate. He talked about his own experiences and recounted some interesting and funny stories about his time in the legislature. He talked about his relationship with Governor Ehrlich when they both served in the House.

Clearly, these guys like each other, but circumstances have thrown them together as antagonists, battling each other for nothing less than the future of their respective political parties in Maryland.

After dinner, Speaker Busch excused himself from our table and moved to another table for a chance to talk to a new group. When he left, I got a chance to know Del. Keith Haynes, a lawyer who won a tough race in downtown Baltimore. Keith represents a tough district, the area around Johns Hopkins Hospital. If you've been there, you've seen the challenge. The research brings with it substantial investment in and right around the campus, with abject poverty within just a few blocks. Keith understands that the challenge is to try to breathe life into an area where others have given up trying.

I asked him if, after session, I could come over and spend some time with him. Gaining a better understanding of situations like this will make me a better legislator.

I also talked to Del. Kathy Dumais, who represents northern Montgomery County. She and I have more in common than our service in the House of Delegates. We share a district boundary (the county line), from the Potomac River over to roughly the lower Urbana area.

This is significant because I got to talk to her about my concerns with the proposed second crossing over the Potomac. I was able to convince her that I might need her help in opposing any attempt to ruin our agricultural and historic resources around Point of Rocks should Virginia try to bring a new crossing through that area.

This is what folks sent me here to do. Use my time and energy to build coalitions, across party lines, to convince others that our district and our county are special and deserving of their support.

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