State Sen. C. Bernard Fowler, whose toes have become a symbol for water quality in Maryland, has decided not to seek re-election, depriving the General Assembly of one of its most environmentally sensitive figures.
Mr. Fowler, 69, a Democrat, has represented Southern Maryland since 1983, earning a reputation as a staunch advocate for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, especially the Patuxent River.
His decision means that environmental interests are losing two of their most prominent legislative champions, as Anne Arundel Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, the Senate's expert on ecological matters, had said earlier he would not run again.
Mr. Fowler's retirement could clear the way for the political comeback of former Rep. Roy P. Dyson, defeated for re-election in 1990 after five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.
In keeping with his courtly, unassuming manner, Mr. Fowler quietly announced his decision Monday at the Calvert County Courthouse in Prince Frederick, where he had served for 12 years as county commissioner.
Many of his fellow senators, gathered in Annapolis for the annual legislative session, still were unaware late yesterday that their colleague planned to step down when his term ends in January.
In his lengthy departure statement and in an interview, he gave no specific reason for his decision and hinted strongly that he was interested in remaining in public life.
"I will leave the . . . Senate fulfilled, but certainly not satisfied," he said. "There is a lot to be done, and those who know Bernie Fowler know that I am not a quitter."
He said he was open to other opportunities, either in appointive or elective office, and indicated an interest in running for lieutenant governor as a "strong voice" for the state's rural areas.
His departure is likely to set off a scramble for his seat. Though he declined comment on a successor yesterday, he is said to favor as a replacement Del. J. Ernest Bell II of Leonardtown.
Another potential candidate is Mr. Dyson, who lost his congressional seat to Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest after a bitter campaign in which Mr. Dyson's relationships with lobbyists for defense contractors were called into question.
There have been occasional reports that Mr. Dyson was considering a run for Mr. Fowler's Senate seat. He was noncommittal when asked his intentions last October.
Mr. Fowler's announcement triggered kudos for his service from an array of environmental advocacy groups, some saying that the losses of both Mr. Fowler and Mr. Winegrad represented a double whammy.
"We will miss Bernie Fowler," said Rod Coggin, spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "He has been a champion of the bay and a consistent one."
Added Mr. Scoggin, "Senator Fowler's departure, combined with Senator Winegrad's, it's a blow, no doubt about it. They were a formidable force and their combined voice for the bay would be hard to match."
Mr. Weingrad said he thinks his decision not to run again may have influenced Mr. Fowler. "I know that troubled him," he said. "There are now two environmental holes that need to be plugged."
Joan S. Willey of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters said the departure of Mr. Fowler, Mr. Weingrad and a third senator who has announced her retirement, Montgomery County's Idamae Garrott, constitutes "a tremendous loss for the environmental movement in Maryland. They're irreplaceable."
Mr. Fowler is best known for walking into the Patuxent to shoulder level each summer in hopes that the water quality had improved enough to see his toes, as he could as a child.
"Bernie is really a symbol for water quality," said Ann P. Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. "His toes will live on long after his departure from the Senate."
Said Frank L. Fox, spokesman for the Appalachian Regional Office of the Sierra Club, "We would hope new champions of the environment will emerge so he can see his toes in the water before he dies."