In Annapolis, a second debate in cyberspace

Republican Del. Justin Ready rose during a recent debate in Annapolis to complain that Maryland's process for petitioning a bill to referendum is "complicated and cumbersome."

Del. Ariana Kelly, a Democrat from Montgomery County, had the opposite view. "Shouldn't it be?" she said.

"No, petitioning a bill should be easier," Ready, who represents a Carroll County district, fired back.

The exchange was remarkable for one reason: It started on the House floor, but it continued in cyberspace, with the two delegates sparring via Twitter.

Until recently, Maryland lawmakers saw social media largely as a way to push self-serving tidbits about their legislative agendas and accomplishments. But this session, a small group in the General Assembly has been moving away from that model. Call them the Twitter Caucus. They whip out their phones and tweet opinions on issues and arguments made by their colleagues.

The phenomenon has created a dynamic where, at times, there have been two levels of debate going on — one in person, which adheres to the decorum required in the House and Senate chambers, and a parallel discussion among the same lawmakers on the Web.

"It is another way to contribute to the debate without getting up on the floor," said Ready, 29, who is the de facto GOP Twitter king. "Sometimes it is nice to have a 'point-counter point.'"

Twitter, of course, is the popular social media tool that enables users to send brief online messages to a group of people who've signed up for updates. Celebrities and star athletes, like Ravens running back Ray Rice, collect tens of thousands of followers. Messages can be sent from a computer or phone.

There aren't General Assembly rules governing Twitter etiquette, so at times the furious online back-and-forth has led to ruffled feathers — particularly during the recent debate on same-sex marriage, when emotions ran high. And with thoughts limited to 140 characters, lawmakers can't make particularly nuanced points and have to assume that followers understand the context.

Though the marriage debate marked the height of live tweeting so far, it also figured in discussions of medical marijuana, casino gambling, tax increases and local building standards.

About 60 of Maryland's 188 state lawmakers have Twitter accounts, according to a count by The Baltimore Sun, though all are not active. Most of the 10 members of Maryland's congressional delegation also have Twitter accounts, though they don't use the medium to make debate points.

In Annapolis, Ready was tweeting this month about a measure on the House floor that would require counties to bring their fire codes in line with state standards. "We elect county officials to handle local building codes … Should be decided by those closest to people," he wrote.

The quick thought went out to his 1,549 Twitter followers — including Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. Ferguson, another member of the legislative twitterati, decided to weigh in on the House debate.

"So we should get rid of the State Legislature?" the senator wrote, sending the message to Ready along with Ferguson's 918 other followers. "I thought you were a fan of the Constitution? Constitution leaves all powers not enumerated in States, not counties, not Cities."

"Kind of a Straw man there," Ready replied, continuing the public debate. "State legislature has jurisdiction over a lot but Local control on zoning is an important concept."

The tweets were so spirited that another lawmaker, watching it unfold in cyberspace, suggested that the two have a face-to-face discussion.

In the Ferguson-Ready exchange, only Ferguson's followers could track Ferguson's messages, and Ready's followers saw only the delegate's thoughts. But anyone interested in the debate could easily sign up for updates from both lawmakers. So the back and forth gave each a chance to introduce himself to new people in the twitterverse.

But the Twitter convention of calling out other users in a public debate is at odds with House and Senate floor rules that forbid members to refer to each other by name, a tradition intended to ensure that lawmakers stick to the substance of debate rather than personalizing their views.

During a marathon same-sex marriage hearing, Del. Anne Kaiser, an openly gay lawmaker, tweeted at a colleague who opposed the bill. "Hey Delegate Valentino Smith – separate is inherently unequal," the Montgomery County Democrat wrote.

Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith, a Democrat from Prince George's County who does not tweet, received an email about the comments and was disturbed enough to bring up the issue in a Democratic caucus meeting.

"I think it is an area where the House will have to make a decision," Valentino-Smith said. "Certainly we operate with a lot of unwritten rules for respect. … Each member of the legislature will have to make a decision about how those general rules of decorum apply to the evolving opportunities we have to use social media."

Not surprisingly, the most sophisticated tweeters tend to be the youngest lawmakers. They also tend to be the newer members of the General Assembly, and several said they feel more comfortable tweeting their opinions than standing to say them aloud on the House or Senate floor.

"You aren't going to get up on every bill," said Del. Michael J. Hough, a Western Maryland Republican who sits next to Ready and tweets during some floor debates. Baltimore's Ferguson agreed — he recently tweeted about legislation that would make it easier for people to defend themselves against costly defamation lawsuits.

More senior lawmakers who tweet add that speaking too frequently in the chamber can diminish one's effectiveness. They want to reserve a floor speech for a high-impact argument. "You can't just keep jumping up on the floor," said Del. Heather Mizeur, a sophisticated tweeter.

Even though tweets are short, the informal nature of the medium allows lawmakers to let down their guard a smidgen and show some personality.

Sitting though an 11-hour hearing on the same-sex marriage bill, Del. Kirill Reznik, a Democrat from Montgomery County, expressed surprise at testimony on reasons for divorce. "Dude just said that the leading cause of divorce is that 'they don't know how to argue,'" he tweeted.

Later, as another witness employed a tortured metaphor, Reznik wrote: "Now the anti-marriage folks are comparing marriage equality to the Italian captain of the Costa Concordia. Oy Vey."

In an interview last week, Reznik said that he feels Twitter allows a more candid conversation among people who normally communicate formally. He hopes he can joke a little without offending.

"I'd like to believe I'm a funny guy and have a sense of humor," Reznik said. "There are people out there who would disagree. … We are human beings."

Here are examples of recent Twitter exchanges between lawmakers

•March 16, 2012

Del. Eric Luedtke (D- Montgomery County): Bill in cmte right now would add a 6th md casino at nat'l harbor. Your thoughts?

Sen. Bill Ferguson (D- Baltimore): Only if funding of preK-for-all is "on the table."

•March 14, 2012, as Gov. Martin O'Malley was testifying in support of the gas tax:

Del. Justin Ready (R-Carroll County): Ask @GovernorOMalley how much of the increase will go into new roads/road repair/improvements vs mass transit.

Del. Patrick Hogan (R- Frederick County): Del. Vitale asked that ? and he said we have set transit as a priority, so he will continue to disproportionately fund transit.

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