Grass-roots activism playing more prominent role


ANNAPOLIS -- William Fromm of Finksburg, founder and director of a small, single-issue grass-roots group, Second Husbands Alliance For Fair Treatment, is part of a new trend that Gov. Parris N. Glendening and others say is playing an increasingly important role in Maryland's legislative process.

The group's aim is making sure that men who become second husbands support their first families. Mr. Fromm often faxes position papers to the General Assembly committees on various child support bills.

"We just wanted to give a voice to the masculine side of the child support dilemma," Mr. Fromm said. "We want to see men be responsible. It is hard enough for a single parent to keep a family together without losing child support."

Allen Freidman, a small-tavern owner in Laurel, is another leader in the grass-roots movement.

He feared Maryland's proposed smoking ban might burn his business, but he didn't get mad. He got on a chartered bus to a State House rally along with 72 patrons and friends.

"If you have just one voice, it's hard to be heard," Mr. Freidman said. "But if you have many voices together, it's hard to be ignored."

"One of the things I think is missed in our discussions of political decisions is the impact of grass-roots movements," said Mr. Glendening, a former government professor at the University of Maryland.

Grass-roots efforts range from small single-issue groups, such as a group fighting to preserve the name of a Wicomico County road, to larger organizations that channel their efforts on major policy areas such as welfare. Members typically bombard legislators and the governor's office with mail, phone calls, visits and newsletters.

"In this session, we've seen this happen on several issues," the governor said. Mr. Glendening said the loosely organized but vocal public protest aimed at an unpopular vehicle emissions testing program was instrumental to the eventual compromise delaying implementation. The program was approved by the legislature in 1991 to meet federal Clean Air standards.

"When people saw what would happen to their cars, they just protested," he said. "It had a very big impact. There is no question in my mind that public outcry on a grass-roots level was very successful."

The emissions test proposal sparked a barrage of grass-roots correspondence and rallies -- even a petition with 110,000 signatures.

The movement was triggered by a constituent of Del. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican, who suggested the petition drive.

Ms. Jacobs' name and number were announced during a talk-radio program for people wishing to request a petition. Petitions were mailed to individuals and collected by the office of Del. Martha S. Klima, a Baltimore County Republican.

"This issue was so very interesting because people were so up in arms about government intrusion," Ms. Jacobs said. "It wasn't driven by us, it was driven by people who were merely responding.

"We were in the right place at the right time."

Ms. Klima, who sponsored the legislation to repeal the stronger emissions testing, called the spontaneous reaction "a proud example of democracy."

"This was not an organized kind of thing," Ms. Klima said. "It was a groundswell -- people just wanted to do something."

Ms. Klima said she believes people are generally becoming more activist.

"People absolutely are taking more of an interest," she said. "This November's election was a national concentrated effort to throw rascals out. That empowered people."

Robert Fisher, a professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work, said grass-roots movements have proliferated since the 1960s, when the nation emerged from an industrial to a post-industrial society.

"In an industrial society, issues dealing with the workplace took center stage," he said. "Now, issues have become less work-oriented, but social, and the locus for organizing is in the communities."

Mr. Fisher said the sentiment that people are apathetic about the government is not necessarily accurate.

RTC "Political activism traditionally is tied with voting," but voting is not necessarily the best indicator of participation, he said. "Increasingly, there is a great alienation that people feel from the electoral process. They don't vote, and it makes people appear increasingly apathetic, when it couldn't be further from the truth."

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