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With 20 years under her belt, Delegate Frush 'happy' in the House

The General Assembly will see an influx of new delegates once session starts this month, but Barbara Frush, who represents Laurel as a member of the District 21 delegation, is not one of them.

Frush, a Democrat, has two decades of experience under her belt. As she begins her 21st year in office, she says she's glad to have spent so much of her career in the State House: "You can do so many wonderful things."

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In her office in Annapolis, Frush, 69, surrounds herself with mementoes of the projects, accomplishments and events that have marked her tenure. A bookcase along one wall is an organized clutter of gifts, awards and snapshots: a stuffed Elvis doll – a present from a staffer's husband, an Elvis memorabilia collector – leans against one bookcase wall, while a shelf over, there's a powder-blue model car filled with bourbon from her late father's home bar and a decade-old photograph of the court house in Upper Marlboro engulfed in flames.

To an outsider, the collection might appear to be a random assortment of kitsch, but for Frush, "every one of those things really means something to me."

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Her office walls, too, are peppered with plaques, and each one comes with a story.

On the wall above Frush's desk are awards from one of her proudest achievements: passing legislation to ban smoking indoors in restaurants, bars and workplaces statewide.

"If I don't do any other thing while I'm here, I have saved thousands and thousands of lives," she said of the legislation. "That's not to say I don't do a lot of other things here. But I think if I looked at the most important thing that I did, it was banning smoking at indoor workplaces."

The bill, for which Frush was a lead sponsor, was passed in 2007, though Frush had been plugging away on anti-smoking measures since she was a freshman in the House.

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Frush remembers that when she was a newbie, in 1995, most of her colleagues were smokers.

"The speaker smoked, my chairman smoked, everyone on my committee smoked," she said. On breaks, committee members would take cigarette breaks in a side room.

But one fellow delegate, George Owings, gave Frush some valuable help, though she didn't immediately realize what he was doing.

As Frush was preparing to argue for one of her anti-smoking bills on the House floor, Owings would drop by her office to argue with her about the legislation.

"He would say, 'You know, Barbara that's stupid,' and I would say, 'No it's not, because...'" Frush recalls.

"After a while, I realized that he hated the fact that he smoked and he was prepping me for the floor."

On the day Frush defended her bill, Owings stood up and said, " 'I'm a smoker, I have emphysema and I'm going to vote for this bill,' " she remembered.

"This is what a lot of your colleagues do; they work with you when they know you're right. And even when you think they're against you, they're not always against you."

In District 21, Frush has a close working relationship with her colleagues, Dels. Joseline Peña-Melnyk and Ben Barnes and Sen. Jim Rosapepe, all Democrats.

"They're wonderful people," she said. "We all kind of walk the same line... Oftentimes, we'll send out four-way letters, and four-way letters mean you've got four legislators who really want to do that [particular piece of legislation]."

Rosapepe, in particular, has worked with Frush for a long time. He remembers meeting her more than 30 years ago when she was a leader in her community, Calverton, fighting against a nearby waste-processing facility that polluted the neighborhood with foul smells.

"She got it closed down," Rosapepe remembered. "It was a great example of her values, her love of community and her effectiveness in championing the people she represents.

"I don't think I know a legislator who is more in tune and in touch with her constituents than Barbara," he added. "She feels their pain; she shares their joy."

In addition to her campaign against smoking, Frush is passionate about animal rights and the environment.

She fondly recalls splitting her summers between days spent at a family beach house on the Chesapeake and at her grandmother's farm in West Virginia.

As a child visiting the farm, she would take bunnies and chicks to bed with her, and as a teenager, "when all my friends were getting new cars, I got a boat," she said.

In the House, Frush has sponsored legislation to fund spay and neuter programs throughout the state, and she is chair of the environment subcommittee as well as the joint committee on the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Critical Area.

She has been a supporter of the stormwater management fee and a critic of fracking, which she believes would be a "huge mistake" if it is implemented.

As she talks about her work and the causes that motivate her, Frush points to pictures of her grandchildren, to the left of her desk.

"This is why you do what you do," she said. "For the kids."

Though her passions have stayed consistent, Frush says she has seen some change in Annapolis since she first arrived.

For example, she shared her office with the rest of the District 21 delegation in her early years: "You knew what was going on in their world, in their committee, and so you had a closer tie to the whole legislature," she said. Now, she has her own space: "I think that people have become more isolated."

Still, Frush says she gets along well with most of her colleagues – Democrat and Republican.

"We all want the same thing," she said. "We want a better Maryland, we want our constituents to be happy, we want the people to thrive.

"We want all of the things that a family wants for their family. And so it's just a matter of working together, and we do."

She's ready to welcome this year's new delegates into the fold.

"I like to bring everybody in," she said. On her committee, "I'm not a dictator; I'm more inclusive than exclusive."

Still, "it's a big learning curve, so we'll move slowly this session," she said.

With two decades in the House and at least four more years ahead of her, Frush said she isn't tired of being a delegate. In fact, she says, she's happy where she is.

"I'm not interested in the Senate seat, even though I'm the senior member," she said. "It's too late for me to start at the bottom. Once you make it to a subcommittee chair, a position of leadership, you want to stay there, and I like being in the House. I really, truly like being in the House."

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