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'Regular guy' legislates for the folks at home

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ANNAPOLIS -- "What's that, hon? You want to do a story on me?"

Del. Charles W. "Stokes" Kolodziejski turns tail and runs toward the door.

It's not that he has anything to hide; he's just one of those rare politicians who doesn't like the limelight.

He doesn't make impassioned speeches. He doesn't aspire to leadership in the General Assembly. And he doesn't introduce much legislation.

How many of his bills have passed in his nine-year tenure?

"Not too many, hon," he chuckles.

How many?

"Two."

One increased the penalties for insurance fraud. The other permitted wheel-of-fortune games at Anne Arundel County political fund-raisers.

But don't assume that Mr. Kolodziejski is taking it easy. He just doesn't approach his job the way his high-powered colleagues do. State policy is not his priority. Taking care of the people back home is.

Home is Carvel Beach in northeastern Anne Arundel County, where body shops and windowless taverns face off against modern industrial parks. It's a place where modest homes hug tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, in communities built decades ago by working people from Baltimore, just like Mr. Kolodziejski.

The 64-year-old delegate is a family man, a bowler, a loyal Democrat and a retired production supervisor at a chemical company. He fits in.

In a dim tavern on Fort Smallwood Road, a stretch of stoplights and smokestacks that winds north into Baltimore, a constituent named George says he likes Mr. Kolodziejski.

"He's a regular guy," George said. "Anything he was running for, I'd vote for him."

Ditto at the Riviera Bowl down the road.

"I like him because I know his daughter-in-law, and they seem to be very family-oriented," said manager Glenna Grimes. "Family-oriented people have a better understanding of things."

And it doesn't hurt, in her opinion, that Mr. Kolodziejski introduced a bill to change the state sport from jousting to duckpin bowling. Bowling is big in District 31. Jousting is not. A hearing on that bill is scheduled for today.

In Annapolis, Mr. Kolodziejski wears a slightly uncomfortable expression and a sharp blue suit as he fields unaccustomed questions. He agrees to the interview more out of politeness than anything else.

"I don't like people to know too much about me," he says.

As a state legislator, Mr. Kolodziejski is an odd mix of old and new.

He paid his dues in old-guard Democratic clubs. Party loyalists say he's a team player who tries to help his constituents. He listens to the problems of senior citizens and the unemployed in his district.

Like a newer breed of politician, he tends to vote the way his constituents want him to, even if he privately disagrees. Although he supports the use of seat belts, he voted against a bill making their use mandatory. "That's what my people wanted," he says.

This philosophy that makes him popular at home raises eyebrows in the state capital. "The bills I did push for -- the people out there liked them, but the [legislative] committees didn't," Mr. Kolodziejski said.

For years he has backed a bill to make English the official language of Maryland. Immigrant groups have called the proposal intolerant, discriminatory and unnecessary. His colleagues have agreed, killing the measure session after session.

But Mr. Kolodziejski won't give up. He said his grandparents came to Baltimore from Poland and learned English quickly. More recent immigrants, he claims, "want to hold on to their old customs. They're not willing to be part of the old melting pot."

He considered introducing a bill allowing someone -- like himself -- to turn off stoplights in the district late at night.

It's a nuisance waiting at red lights when there's no traffic, he said. He held back because he was told the bill would have failed.

He received some press attention this year with a bill that would prohibit drivers from holding car phones while they're moving. It died last week.

A House committee has already killed yet another Kolodziejski favorite -- a proposal encouraging local school boards to make children wear uniforms.

As a child in South Baltimore, Mr. Kolodziejski wore uniforms in parochial school. He grew up in a Polish-American neighborhood in East Brooklyn and, later, in Curtis Bay.

His father was an Amoco Corp. shift supervisor, and his mother worked summers skinning tomatoes. He got his nickname, "Stokes," fromthe stovepipe knickers he wore long after other boys cast them aside.

Along the way, he learned the value of hard work and knowing whom to please.

"I shined shoes to make enough to go to the movies and have candy for the whole week. It was 5 cents a shine in those days. If you didn't shine the shoes right, the guy would kick you in the tail and not pay you nothing," he remembers.

He served with Army in the Philippines in 1946 and 1947. He came home and married his wife, Georgia Anna. They reared five children. He built their trim, cream-colored home in Carvel Beach himself, using a book entitled "How to Build Your Dream Home for Less than $3,800."

"It cost me $6,000," he admits.

He worked his way up through the ranks at FMC Corp. in Baltimore. "The good Lord always took care of me. Every time I had another child I always received a raise in pay or a higher position," he said.

He served six terms as president of the local Stoney Creek Democratic Club before being appointed to the House of Delegates in 1983 to fill a vacancy.

"He relates very closely to the working-class people, the [political] clubs, the American Legion -- the people who came out of Baltimore, got a house in Anne Arundel County and followed the American dream," said state Sen. Michael J. Wagner, a cigar-chomping businessman from Glen Burnie.

As someone who does not have leadership ambitions, "Stokes knows his place," Mr. Wagner said. "He fits in well with the delegation. . . . I think he's the ultimate team player."

Jerome F. Connell Sr., who lost his state Senate seat after a 1985 conviction for tax evasion, helped get Mr. Kolodziejski into state politics.

He described Mr. Kolodziejski as a caring "young man," who made up for his "lack of technical ability" by working hard and seeking out experts on complex legislative matters.

But Mr. Kolodziejski apparently didn't learn some lessons well, Mr. Connell said, or he wouldn't have asked a reporter to call his one-time mentor.

"He ought to learn the first rule of politics -- disgust for reporters," Mr. Connell said dryly.

"One of the things that hurts him the most is he has no ruthless aspects to him," the former senator said. "He's the kind of person the press can readily take advantage of. He's too sincere, and he's too honest. There's such a thing as being too honest."

Mr. Kolodziejski happily concedes the point.

"I could never tell my wife a lie because if I did my ears would get red," he said. "She always knew when I stopped with the boys for a beer after work."

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