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GOP freshman challenges Maryland power structure

Parrott is behind all three referenda set for ballot this November

By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

11:58 PM EDT, July 24, 2012

HAGERSTOWN —

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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.

In a move that made some in his own party uneasy, he wrote a letter in 2005 to the editor of his local newspaper arguing that HIV-positive patients should be tattooed "in a spot covered by a bathing suit" before being given life-saving medications. The mark would serve as a warning so potential sex partners would not unknowingly become infected, Parrott said.

"An effective way to enforce the consistency of the tattoo would be to provide medicine to the infected individual only after they have received the HIV tattoo," he wrote in the letter.

Parrott said he has since abandoned the idea because advances in medicine have made the disease more treatable.

The delegate discussed his philosophy and petition successes recently in temporary offices rented by MDPetitions.com, home of the organization he set up to run petition drives.

The office, a former Centra Bank branch on the outskirts of Hagerstown, was decorated with signs highlighting the boundaries of the new congressional map the Democrats drew. (Parrott said the most effective way of convincing people to sign a petition against the map is simply to show it to them.)

He sat with his wife, April, while their daughters, Patience, 9, and Charity, 8, played nearby. The Parrotts also have a son, Neilson, 6. The family is a familiar presence in Annapolis. Since the children are home-schooled, the whole family moves to the state capital for the three-month General Assembly session so the kids can learn about the legislative process.

The couple met in church when both were living in Anne Arundel County. They are both devout Christians and describe their faith as "nondenominational."

When the couple met, Parrott was working as a traffic engineer with the Maryland Highway Administration in Annapolis. They moved to Western Maryland, where Parrott now runs Traffic Solutions Inc., a consulting company.

The couple recalled their first brush with Maryland's referendum process seven years ago, after the General Assembly passed a package of bills extending some legal rights to gay couples.

The measures protected gays from hate crimes. It is also gave unmarried couples, gay and straight, medical decision-making rights and allowed property transfers among such partners without paying state or local taxes. A fourth law required schools to report bullying.

Conservatives mounted an effort to repeal all four measures, and Parrott — a private citizen who had never run for office — offered to be the Washington County coordinator.

He recorded an automated call asking supporters to gather at a church to sign petitions. To make it easier for people to figure out which ones they'd signed, Parrott printed petition forms for each law on different-colored paper.

The effort wasn't enough, falling short of the initial state threshold of turning in one-third of the necessary signatures. "Around the state, the organization just didn't get together as much as it needed to," Parrott said. "If it is going to be successful, there need to be a lot of people involved."

Parrott also learned another lesson: The state's Board of Elections, which provides the final approval on petitions, has strict criteria for signatures it will accept. That made him realize there needed to be a better way of making sure people were signing their names the same way they'd registered to vote.

He didn't immediately pursue more referendum issues, instead turning to national politics. After Barack Obama was elected president and "everything bad happened," Parrott said, he started organizing busloads of people to go to Washington to protest Obama's health care law.

He and his wife also put together the first Hagerstown tea party rally, in April 2009. They drove in pouring rain to a Hagerstown square, expecting a few dozen people to show up, at best. They found 300.

Three months later, Parrott decided to run for an open delegate seat. He met with four people considering entering the race and convinced them to drop out. Then he crushed his single opponent in the GOP primary, taking more than 80 percent of the vote.

In November 2010, he easily beat his Democratic opponent, who declined to be interviewed for this article. In January 2011, Parrott started his career in Annapolis, one of 43 Republicans in a chamber of 141.

He kept a close eye on last year's same-sex marriage debate and began meeting with the Board of Elections to figure out how he might challenge such a law at the ballot box. When the measure failed to win suppport in the House of Delegates, Parrott put the petition effort aside.

But then the DREAM Act passed near the end of the 2011 session. Parrott was astounded — and posted a message on his Facebook page. "Do you think we should try to get the signatures to take this to referendum so that the people can decide?" he wrote.

Within minutes, 26 supportive comments came back. He decided to do it.

Now — with the potential to defeat that and two other laws in November — he's taking some time with his family to decide how he can best be involved in the statewide campaigns.

"We are going to pray about it," Parrott said. "Ideally I won't be involved at all. This is the time to let the people vote."

But after pausing for a moment, he added: "We do have to be sure they have the correct information."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

twitter.com/annielinskey

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