Romanians find democracy deals with biker garb, credit cards Md. Senate visitors also see check-cash bill debate


The essence of democracy in modern America played out in all its prosaic splendor yesterday for a group of Romanian legislators looking for lessons in statecraft.

"I don't know where we could find a better model than in your country," said Oliviu Gherman, president of the Romanian Senate, speaking from the rostrum of its Maryland counterpart.

He and a dozen colleagues -- visiting the World Bank in Washington -- were on a day trip to Annapolis. They found the state Senate grappling with questions of fashion and commerce:

Could the owner of a restaurant legally deny service to patrons dressed in the rakish "Born To Lose" garb of bikers?

Could a retail establishment require presentation of a credit card before cashing a check?

Had there been time, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. might have explained that riders of motorcycles have stalled both houses of the General Assembly for days on the question of helmets: Should riders be required to wear them? Or is it the right of anyone in a democratic society to put himself or herself at risk on a state's highways?

Yesterday's biker bill, sponsored by Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat, was so vexing that a final vote was delayed until tomorrow.

The Senate turned instead to the check cashing and credit card matter. That bill would have denied shopkeepers their current right to ask a customer merely to display a credit card as proof of credit-worthiness. Notwithstanding the fact that the shop owner may not now examine or record the credit card number, senators with experience in the marketplace said the bill troubled them.

"If you pull out that gold card," said Sen. F. Vernon Boozer, a Baltimore County Republican, "I know somebody's run a credit check."

But the bill's sponsor, Sen. Gloria Lawlah, a Prince George's Democrat, said merely displaying a credit card offers no protection -- and serves only to frustrate and unfairly penalize customers who don't have one.

When the debate ended and the bill was defeated 26-21, the Romanians filed into the Senate lounge, where Mr. Miller said he believes the Romanians are making admirable strides toward democracy, bringing together disparate political and ethnic groups to form a new state.

"The challenges," said Mr. Gherman, who holds a doctorate in mathematics and physics from the University of Bucharest, "are extraordinary."

As for the Senate's business yesterday -- biker dress codes and check cashing privileges -- Mr. Miller said they were "typical issues for a United States legislature."

Mr. Gherman, who said his trip here would help to make Romania a "pillar of democracy," smiled politely.

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