State Sen. James N. Robey says there was no grand ambition, no plan to ascend to where he now sits as majority leader of the Maryland Senate, or to have made the unusual leaps from Howard County police chief to county executive to legislator. Things happened, he said, one thing led to another, people egged on a sometimes reluctant candidate.
He's 73 now, and a couple of weeks ago, because it was Maryland Day, he put on a black-white-red-and-gold state flag necktie to go with the white shirt and gray suit and stepped out of his overnight accommodations at the Calvert House on State Circle to begin one of his last days of his last legislative session.
To see the man joking with colleagues and a lobbyist who stopped into his office unannounced — not recommended, Robey said, by the way — you'd think he always had had this life in mind and would want to go on doing it.
He hadn't and he doesn't, he said.
Last year, he gave the word to Janet Robey, his wife of 52 years, then to the rest of the world that two terms in the state Senate would do. He would wrap up life as a fixture in Howard County public service that began when he joined the county police as a 25-year-old patrol officer in 1966.
He has cultivated a reputation as an effective executive and legislator, "left of center," as he puts it, shy of the limelight and not given to long speeches. He's no more expansive on the reason why he's leaving the Senate than on the reasons why he joined the police force, or ran for executive, or senator.
After 48 years, after a string of four uncontested primaries and four general election wins without a loss, after having a county building named after him, the Democrat representing District 13 figures enough is enough.
"I don't know, it's just a feeling you get," said Robey, an Elkridge resident who is one of three senators in the county legislative delegation and the only one whose constituents are all Howard residents. "I've done enough. It's time to move aside and let someone else come in. … It's time. I knew it was time to leave the Police Department, and I know it's time to retire from public life."
Maybe he follows an eight-year rule. Eight years as police chief, eight as executive — term limits forced that departure — and now eight years as state senator. Named majority leader last fall, he'll have the duty at the stroke of midnight Monday, when the 2014 General Assembly session ends, to rise at his seat in the chamber and move that the Senate "stand sine die" — or adjourn for the 2014 session.
He never sought the majority leader's spot, he said. That was Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's idea, announced to Robey's surprise last October in Savage Mill's Great Room at a fundraiser for Del. Guy Guzzone, a Democrat running to succeed Robey.
"I was honored," Robey said. "I thought it was a great way to end my last year in the Senate."
It wasn't the first time Miller had called. Years earlier, as Robey was in the last year of his final term as Howard County executive, Miller summoned him to lunch at Harry Browne's in Annapolis to talk about how the Democrats needed a strong candidate to challenge the one-term incumbent Republican, Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, in District 13.
Robey had already defeated her husband, then-County Councilman Dennis R. Schrader, a Republican, in Robey's first run for the executive job in 1998. Robey looked like an underdog then, outspent two-to-one and facing what seemed a partisan disadvantage — the incumbent executive and three of five council members were Republicans.
The Democrats gained the edge in 1998 and have held it since, a shift led by Robey.
'I'm not a politician'
As a profession, police chief is not generally considered a springboard into politics, but Howard County residents Vivian C. "Millie" Bailey and Larry Aaronson thought it was a good idea for Robey. They were members of the Citizens Advisory Council, a group Robey formed not long after he became chief in 1991. After a council meeting at police headquarters, they sat down with Robey and suggested he consider running for county executive to succeed Republican Charles Ecker.
"He looked at us like 'You must be out of your mind,' " Bailey recalled. "It took a little pushing on our part."
Robey remembers that talk, remembers saying something like, "I'm not a politician. What do I know about it?"
Enough, it seems, to win repeatedly. He does not attribute this to a gift for campaigning — he happily points out that he's never waved to prospective voters from street corners or knocked on doors — or raising money, which he professes to hate.
He figures that by serving in the Police Department so long in a relatively small county, by the time he ran for office he didn't have to work so hard to get his name around. People knew him, even if their first meetings were not always pleasant.
He likes to tell a story about the Christmas cards he received for years from a man Robey not only arrested for being drunk and disorderly, but whacked upside the head with a nightstick. Evidently, the fellow was grateful for an event that he felt helped him turn his life around.
"When you're a police officer for decades, you get to know the county," said County Executive Ken Ulman, who succeeded Robey in the office in 2006. Ulman acknowledges he's never emulated Robey's taciturn personal style but did ask for his perspective on governing.
Robey's approach, Ulman said, was to "hire great department heads, then let them do their jobs."
Howard's growth had slowed a bit by the time Robey took office, but only compared to the wild pace of decades earlier, as the advent of Columbia contributed to the population's tripling to 187,000 between 1970 and 1990. Still, Robey said his administration allocated money for nine new schools in eight years.
County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, who was a school activist when Robey was elected as county executive, remembered the fight over construction of a 12th high school, as Robey did not include the money in his capital budget in 2001.
"We organized a bunch of parents and kids" to pack the executive's budget hearing, said Watson, a Democrat who is running for executive this year against Republican State Sen. Allan H. Kittleman. There must have been 150 people, she said, including about 50 elementary school kids holding balloons marked with the number 12.
She gives Robey credit for handling the crowd gracefully, especially the children, being willing to reconsider his decision and eventually coming up with the money to build what became Marriotts Ridge High School.
Watson, who later served a term on the Board of Education, was elected to the County Council in 2006, and calls Robey a "mentor and a role model for me in my public life…His hallmark in the county is public service with a very humble approach."
Her opponent in the general election, who served on the council under executive Robey and now alongside him in the Senate, agreed.
"He's just very reasonable," said Kittleman. "He doesn't seem to get upset when people disagree with him."
The quiet man
By his Senate colleagues' account, Robey is the quiet man who seldom speaks on the Senate floor, but when he does, he gets people's attention. A member of the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee, he's been particularly outspoken on matters of public safety and care for disabled people.
Several of his colleagues recalled his remarks on a bill in 2009 to expand a pilot program from Montgomery County to the entire state, allowing speed cameras in school zones. Opponents called it an overbearing government intrusion, but Robey insisted it was about safety.
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Robey told about an experience he had when he was a police sergeant, decades before, handling an accident on Montgomery Road in which a little boy was killed.
"I still remember the funeral director asking me to help him load that youngster into a rubber bag," Robey said in his office, his blue eyes welling up. "You never forget things like that."
Ulman considered Robey's commitment to public safety when it came time to name the new police training center in Marriottsville. At the dedication ceremony in late October, 2007, when they unveiled the sign for the James N. Robey Public Safety Training Center, Ulman said he thought Robey was "a little uncomfortable. Maybe he thought it was a little too much."
Yes, that's right, Robey said. While he appreciated the honor, he said he was also thinking that many people were involved in establishing the new training complex for police and firefighters. When Ulman told him he was going to name the center for him, "my first thought was: 'Am I dead?' "
The quiet man plans to shift now into a quieter phase of life, hoping to travel more and spend more time in a cabin he and his wife had built in West Virginia.
"We're going to sit in the screened-in porch and watch the deer come by, and the wild turkeys," he said.