When the crowd of about 125 people gathered in Columbia's Kahler Hall for Liz Bobo's final town hall meeting last week, they probably expected to hear the delegate talk (as she has for the past 19 years) about hot-button issues before the General Assembly, about her own legislative priorities — maybe, too, about the issues back home that concern her.
But the evening closed on an unexpectedly emotional note as Bobo, a Columbia Democrat, bid farewell to her audience of friends and constituents Feb. 27.
As music by folk singer Pete Seeger played in the background, Bobo, 70, projected a video with images of grandson Zach Lederer, who entered hospice care last month after a two-year battle with brain cancer, bringing some in the crowd to tears.
And then — beckoning her musician friends to the front of the room to accompany her on harmonica and guitar — she led the crowd in a singalong to Seeger's classic, "If I Had a Hammer."
Well, I got a hammer, and I got a bell, and I got a song to sing all over this land. It's the hammer of justice, it's the bell of freedom, it's the song about love, between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land.
The audience, many of whom had moved to Columbia in its heady early years, knew all the words.
Bobo's retirement after 20 sessions in Annapolis — and a career that before her State House days included one term as Howard County executive and two on the County Council — represents, in many ways, the end of an era.
She's the last of Howard County's current elected officials to have served during the 1970s, as word spread of Columbia founder Jim Rouse's vision and the planned community found itself on a national stage.
She was the first female county executive in the state of Maryland and the last remaining politician, by her own estimation, to have been able to call up Rouse on the phone when she needed advice.
Bobo's final town hall was marked by the frankness that has come to define her approach to governing.
"I wouldn't trade these 30-some years for anything," she told the crowd. "I've had some significant accomplishments, in my opinion, I've had some disappointments and I've had no regrets."
With nearly nine weeks down and four to go, Bobo is speeding toward the end of her final session in Annapolis.
But while she's been down at the State House tying up loose ends, she's often found her mind wandering back home to Howard County and her grandson, Zach.
"I've been looking forward to this eagerly, but also with curiosity — what's it going to feel like, being down here, knowing I'm going to do these things for the last time?" she said. "But then along came Zachary, and it's very different. I'm there, I'm doing my job, I know everything that's going on, but I don't think I'm experiencing everything as clearly as I would have, because that's what's in the forefront of my mind and my heart all the time."
Bobo speaks fondly of her relationship with her 20-year-old grandson, who she says she's "learned more from than anyone in all my life."
She and Lederer, whose picture of a triumphant muscle flex after waking up from brain surgery went viral and spawned the term "Zaching" in 2012, had a tradition of going out to lunch together once a week.
On one occasion, Bobo recalled, Lederer's father asked him what he and a friend were going to talk about with her while at lunch.
"And he said, 'Dad, it just so happens that Grandma is a very interesting person!' " she laughed.
In May, Lederer tweeted about these moments with Bobo: "I have the greatest conversations with Grandma. #blessed," he wrote.
Since Lederer was taken off life support in January, Bobo has come to visit "almost every day.
"I just kind of stand by his bed and talk to him," she said. "I was talking to him the other day … and I said, 'Zach, how do you do it? How do you stay so positive?' "
It's possible he may have learned some of his outlook from Bobo herself, who embraces Eastern practices like acupuncture and meditation, and has weathered ups and downs throughout her career.
At one point expected to run for governor, Bobo faced heartbreaking political defeat in 1990, when she was edged out of the county executive seat by Chuck Ecker, Howard's first and only Republican county executive, by just 500 votes.
The loss was the result of displeasure over Bobo's slower growth decisions as executive, which prohibited development in environmentally sensitive areas and required infrastructure to be planned for and approved before development began.
A strong anti-incumbent wave also crashed on elections that year, which Bobo said she didn't anticipate.
"I knew I was making political enemies by [restricting growth]," she said. "And I knew it was going to cost me votes. ... What I wasn't counting on was that an anti-incumbent wave was coming through, and four county executives lost that year."
But Bobo, who was at the time divorced and helping to put two kids through college, said losing her re-election campaign ended up opening some unexpected doors.
"It was very hard losing," she said. But, "the really good news about it — I don't think there's a prayer in the world that I'd be married to [former Howard County Council member Lloyd Knowles] now if I had won that election, because I was so focused on my career. So it turned out to be more than a good trade. Life is funny."
And, she added, taking some time off from politics helped to refocus her priorities.
"Politics has never been my life, never," said Bobo, who graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in literature and later earned a law degree. "I have a deep interest with spending time with friends, many of whom are not involved in politics at all; I love to travel; I love to read; I'm interested in spiritual movements and gardening — and so I was fortunate not to have gone the path of making my whole life around politics, and it stayed that way ever since.
"So yeah, it was a hard thing to do," she added. "But to learn how to get over that and let go of it, it really turned out to be one heck of a life lesson."
'True to her convictions'
When Bobo was first elected to the House of Delegates representing Columbia's District 12B in 1995, many thought she would quickly rise through the ranks.
"People thought I was going to be on a trajectory," she said. But her opposition to some bills early in her State House career, such as one using taxpayer money to build a stadium for Baltimore's newly adopted Ravens and another deregulating the gas and electric industry, left her in the minority.
Bobo said she didn't want to betray her principles. "People kept asking me and pressuring," she recalled. "And I said no way."
State Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, a Democrat who has served with Bobo in District 12 throughout the whole 19 years she's been there, called her "a person who is true to her convictions."
Bobo "stands up for what she believes in, doesn't in any way compromise her beliefs [and is] very sincere," he said. "Whatever she says she does, and she's been a real pleasure to work with."
Reflections, and looking forward
As Bobo prepares to step down, she has been reflecting on her career accomplishments. And lately, she said, she has been worried about the growing divide between rich and poor in the state and country.
As a member of the Commerce and Government Matters Committee for many years, Bobo pushed to regulate new bank practices — such as payday lending, check cashing and debt management — that were just starting to become common.
"I think that was my biggest accomplishment," she said. But, "now, in the last six years, a lot of it has been, if not reversed, diminished."
Bobo, who chaired the Land Use and Ethics Subcommittee until two weeks ago, is also concerned about the influence of money on the political process.
"It's getting worse, with more and more and more money coming from big-monied interests," she told constituents at the town hall. Though she said she's mostly been unsuccessful at trying to place greater restrictions on campaign contributions, she was able to pass a bill restricting all forms of businesses from bypassing the campaign contribution limit — though it was passed as part of legislation that raised the overall limit on campaign contributions.
And as for development in Columbia, Bobo is cautiously optimistic.
"It's crazy to stop change," she said. But she hopes that new development will be accompanied by infrastructure, and that downtown Columbia and the lakefront will remain open to everyone.
She said she plans to stick around to see it all evolve: She and Knowles will remain in Columbia.