By any standard measure, Neil Parrott's place in Maryland politics ought to be toward the very bottom. He's a freshman Republican delegate in a very blue state, without pedigree or government connections.
Yet through dogged organizing and clever use of technology, this tea party leader from Hagerstown has turned a little-used provision of the Maryland Constitution into a tool capable of overturning chunks of the ruling Democrats' legislative agenda.
Parrott, a University of Maryland-trained traffic engineer, developed a website that makes it much easier to collect the 56,000 valid signatures needed to petition a law to referendum in Maryland. As a result, three laws are headed to voters in November — laws to legalize same-sex marriage, allow some illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition, and create a new congressional map.
It's the first time in 20 years that any law has been petitioned to the Maryland ballot.
By showing that the referendum process can be mastered, Parrott is shifting the balance of power in Annapolis and offering his party a path to relevance that it has lacked since GOP Gov.Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. left the State House. Maryland Republicans crowned Parrott their Man of the Year at their spring convention.
"He is the person most responsible for what is potentially the most significant change in our democracy for decades," said Del. Steve Schuh, an Anne Arundel County Republican.
"It is clear that Neil is one of the most powerful people in Maryland," said Del. Sam Arora, a Montgomery County Democrat. He noted that three sometimes-warring Democratic leaders — the governor, House speaker and Senate president — must agree to pass a law in Annapolis. "It just takes Neil to stop it in its tracks," Arora said.
Parrott, 41, says his goal is to tame the state's Democratic establishment so it won't pass legislation that he says most Marylanders oppose. "If bills are passed that don't go against the will of the people, well, there won't be a need for a referendum," he said. "That is what I hope happens: We will bring some reasonableness back to Annapolis and some common sense."
His website gives wider access to the petitions at the center of any referendum effort. People can print the petitions and mail them in, though Democrats are challenging the legality of this in a complaint filed Tuesday. The site also features an online tool that allows signators to check their names against the voter rolls. This makes sure they sign exactly as they are registered, helping ensure that the signature will be ruled valid.
The site is credited by many with helping opponents of all three measures win a spot on the ballot.
Parrott's success hasn't always sat well with other Republicans. Four-term Baltimore County Del. Patrick McDonough, who had been the go-to Republican in Annapolis on immigration issues, has complained that the freshman has received too much credit for challenging the immigration tuition law.
The GOP establishment was not initially behind Parrott last year when he set out to challenge the in-state tuition law, called the DREAM Act. He recalls that one prominent Republican predicted the challenge would fail and hurt the party.
House Republican leader Anthony O'Donnell did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article. O'Donnell's deputy, Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio of the Eastern Shore, acknowledged that Parrott started without establishment support.
"That is one of the great things about new lawmakers," Haddaway-Riccio said. "They have the energy and determination to change things and not listen when people say you can't do it."
House SpeakerMichael E. Buschdeclined to comment about Parrott.
Parrott comes across with the earnestness of the Eagle Scout that he used to be. He is just over 6 feet tall, with a trim swimmer's build, and keeps his salt-and-pepper hair closely cropped. He has never lived outside Maryland.
Politically, Parrott's rise was unexpected; he came up as a leader in the tea party movement that Maryland Republican voters have not widely embraced. He was elected in 2010 by a wide margin, despite never having previously held office.
He reliably votes with the GOP caucus and has introduced legislation reaffirming states' rights and calling upon state government to expel illegal immigrants. One of his bills has passed, a measure increasing the penalties for child abuse that results in death.
His style in the chamber differs from most of the GOP leaders, who often give impassioned speeches on the House and Senate floors. Parrott has an easygoing "aw shucks" manner when he gives remarks.
It's a personality that belies his unyielding views on economic and social issues. He took on the American Civil Liberties Union in 2002, arguing that a monument to the Ten Commandments should remain in a public park in Frederick. Parrott won.