Thomas L. Bromwell

Thomas L. Bromwell (Sun photo by Lloyd Fox / January 22, 2003)

In Annapolis, Thomas L. Bromwell invariably sported a huge gold ring he described as "big and gaudy and loud" - much like himself.

A big man with a thick Bawlamer accent, the former tavern owner from Perry Hall was a colorful and imposing figure during his 23 years in the General Assembly. His indictment yesterday on racketeering and fraud charges threatens to overshadow a political career he started as a state delegate of 28 and ended in 2002 as one of the most powerful men in Maryland.

His voting record was usually socially conservative - with a streak of economic populism reflecting his largely blue-collar district. But he occasionally climbed out on a political limb and cast a vote from his heart, as in 2001 in supporting a gay rights bill.

"I'm voting for this bill because I know gays and lesbians, and they're my friends," he told the Senate.

When Bromwell, now 56, retired from the Senate three years ago to take a lucrative job running Maryland's Injured Workers Insurance Fund, he left behind a record of both significant achievements and cozy relationships with lobbyists.

In 1998, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he crafted and steered to passage a bill extending health insurance to patients in potentially life-saving clinical trials. The product of intensive negotiations between insurers and hospitals under pressure from Bromwell, it was hailed as a model for the nation.

The same year, on the last night of the legislative session, he single-handedly talked to death a bill designed to restrict minors' access to cigarette vending machines. He said he was looking out for the little guys - tavern owners who did not admit children.

But the bill's defeat also pleased some of Bromwell's lobbyist friends, including the vending machine industry's Bruce C. Bereano. A different version of the bill would pass two years later.

Bromwell was very much an old school Annapolis pol. Before the practice was outlawed, he asked lobbyists to help him obtain $2,150 worth of tickets to a sold-out Ravens-Redskins game.

"I said, 'Hey, listen, I want to bring a busload of people to the game,'" he later recalled. "They got me tickets."

At times, Bromwell seemed to operate by his own set of rules. He ran the most lobbyist-friendly committee in Annapolis - openly involving these "hired guns" in bill mark-up sessions where most chairmen discouraged their presence. He sometimes interrupted committee meetings to ask industry representatives whether they could agree to changes in a bill.

"Lobbying is not the dirty word to me it is to others," he said.

Except for President Thomas V. Mike Miller, his mentor and sometimes rival, Bromwell was the most prodigious fundraiser in the Maryland Senate. Lobbyists, companies and trade associations put him at the top of their donation lists - mindful that the Senate Finance chairman often serves as one of the chief arbiters in their legislative turf wars.

But Bromwell had a way of making fundraisers fun. The typical Maryland legislator would hold a bull-and-oyster roast or a golf tournament. Bromwell for many years threw a "Jamaican Me Crazy Party" at the Bay Cafe in Canton that was one of the highlights of the political year in Maryland.

"His fundraiser is like the Super Bowl of American politics. Everyone wants to be there," Bereano said.

For most of his tenure, Bromwell served as a loyal and increasingly able member of Miller's leadership team. He was considered one of the few senators with the political skills to ascend to the Senate presidency.

But in 2000, apparently frustrated by Miller's unprecedented longevity in office, Bromwell mounted a coup to topple the Senate president with the assistance of Senate Republicans. The effort failed. It was a testament to Bromwell's popularity that Miller let his rival retain his committee chairmanship - albeit on a shorter leash and with diminished clout.

During his final session in the Senate, Bromwell stood against the political tide as a lonely defender of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, while future House Speaker Michael E. Busch was leading a campaign to block a sale of the company that was widely perceived as a sweetheart deal for its management.

In his last major battle on the Senate floor, Bromwell was a conspicuous loser as Blue Cross opponents attached a "deal-breaker" amendment, effectively turning a Bromwell bill into a Busch bill.

The vote was a humiliating loser, 32-15.

With his path to the Senate presidency blocked indefinitely by Miller, Bromwell left the Senate shortly after the 2002 session to become chief executive of IWIF - a quasi-public corporation he knew well from his oversight role as Finance Committee chief.

The job came with a hefty raise from a part-time senator's pay of $31,509. Salary, bonuses and car allowance made the IWIF post worth about $250,000.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com