REGIONAL, ETHNIC and gender voting blocs -- their strengths trumpeted so proudly during the recent legislative session -- get headlines, but the legislative soul is lost or saved by individuals.

One person, one precious vote.

We are talking about the frightening power and responsibility riding on each yea and nay flashed to the electronic tote boards, House and Senate, during any General Assembly session.

Votes and speeches that are of significance often are of no value to a politician in search of an accomplishment to run on. They come at moments of low drama and often when the lawmaker is struggling to keep pace with a torrent of bills.

Issues of life and law, decided for 5 million Marylanders by 47 senators and 141 delegates, always come down to individuals -- their questions, their ideas, their observations.

Delegates and senators are sent to Annapolis to reflect the will of their districts and to exercise their best judgment. Once there, they frequently fall in love with the atmosphere -- nice offices, swanky receptions and positions of power.

The best do not forget, in spite of these distractions, their ethic of public service.

Some examples:

Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat, was a firm voice protesting reconsideration of a sprawl control amendment in the Environmental Matters Committee. The hour was late, committee members exhausted, but Oaks persisted. The committee never reconsiders anything, he observed repeatedly, and was doing so at that moment under pressure from the chairman.

But Del. Ronald A. Guns, committee chairman and a Cecil Democrat, wanted the amendment adopted, so he broke his own rule against reconsideration. "Not right," said Oaks. Montgomery Democratic Del. Leon G. Billings joined him in the protest, but the chairman persisted, arguing that members hadn't understood what they were doing. Not every interest gets an opportunity to revisit its lost legislation on similar grounds. Oaks lost, but made his point.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard Democrat, spotted a questionable banking bill and, with meticulous research, spotlighted its shortcomings. Though backed by powerful industry representatives and a committee chairman, the bill failed on the floor after her arguments were heard.

Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, a Montgomery Democrat, lifted his singular voice against a bill that many legislators may have questioned but few bothered to oppose, one that prescribes how and under what circumstances automobile headlights should be turned on. The bill passed -- with 71 votes, the precise number needed. One more speech, one more vote against, and the Maryland driver might be allowed to make his own decisions on this matter.

Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Howard Democrat, opposed a bill that would have allowed employees in the Department of Business and Economic Development to manage a state fund -- as paid private consultants.

Pendergrass was the only vote in her committee against the bill. She spoke against -- ignoring unofficial rules against opposing one's committee in debate on the floor. The bill passed the House but not the Senate where, perhaps, the Pendergrass arguments were heard.

Del. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a Baltimore Democrat, lost his sometimes eloquent attempt to derail a quarter-billion-dollar aid package for city schools. In taking what some thought was an unwise position against the package, Mitchell asserted his view that the city had been a victim of educational underfunding for decades and was settling for less than it deserved.

Though not widely shared, his views made those of his colleagues who did support the $254 million measure seem more reasonable.

Del. John Adams Hurson, a Montgomery Democrat and majority leader of the House, voted for the Baltimore schools deal, joining Billings and Democratic Del. Michael R. Gordon alone among the Montgomery team who voted for the city package.

In Montgomery, a columnist has imposed a political fatwa on all three -- a must-defeat order to be enforced in the next election. Unintimidated, they put conscience over coalition, judgment over juggernaut.

Abandoning the unwritten and sometimes harshly enforced rules of "leadership" conformity in the House of Delegates, Prince George's Democratic Del. James C. Rosapepe led a determined effort to achieve parity with Baltimore on aid to education. Rosapepe's argument that other jurisdictions have poor kids, too, resonated broadly, won many adherents, giving House leaders fits -- and may have cost him his position in the committee councils where loyalty can be the price of admission.

As retribution, he reportedly will lose his post as vice chairman of Ways and Means. He seems not to care:

"I didn't come down here to be something," he said. "I came to do something."

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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