Rookie basks in the glare of his political fireworks

Since Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr. arrived in the State House a year ago, he has sued another delegate, accused nine Democrats of casting "anti-American" votes and admonished Annapolis' mayor to be a "true American."

Last month, the first-term Republican threw his largest "grenade," as he likes to call his surprises: He recruited the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court -- who was ousted for defying a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from his courthouse -- to address Maryland lawmakers.


Says Dwyer, a Glen Burnie resident, "You're either going to like me or you're not going to like me. You're not going to be unsure because you don't know who I am."

As the 2004 General Assembly gets up to full speed, Dwyer, 45, finds himself a rookie delegate in an overwhelming minority. But he is increasingly making noise -- mostly outside the State House chambers.


For Dwyer, it has become a battle to get his name and views out without earning a label he finds counterproductive. "I don't want to be portrayed as a religious fanatic," he says.

Two years ago, Dwyer didn't look very electable, even to the state Republican Party. The Glen Burnie High School graduate, a former contract engineer for several aviation companies and the former owner of a small screen-printing business, was unknown politically.

He had taken a class on the Constitution taught through the Pasadena law firm of Peroutka and Peroutka. It took the position that Americans' liberties have been infringed upon, and Dwyer became interested in spreading those views by seeking elected office.

"We weren't convinced Don Dwyer could pull it out," said Joe Cluster, the political director for the state Republican Party. "He was out of nowhere, but he did everything right."

Dwyer, now the director of the law firm's Institute on the Constitution, waved signs and knocked on doors. He won election in November 2002, defeating incumbent Del. Mary M. Rosso.

Even before he took office, Dwyer sued Del. Mary Ann Love, the chairwoman of the Anne Arundel County delegation, for making rule changes that allowed Democrats to maintain the delegation majority. The case went to the state's highest court, and Dwyer lost.

Then he wrote to Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, criticizing her stance against the Iraq war. The only problem: Moyer hadn't taken a public stance on the war; she was organizing forums to share all views. Dwyer decided there was no need to apologize.

After that, he wrote a letter criticizing Democratic delegates in harsh language for supporting bills to study whether illegal immigrants should be allowed driver's licenses.


The way Love sees it, Dwyer isn't good for the General Assembly. She has found him unwilling to work with other delegates.

"I know we all come from different ways and different views, but there has to be a certain compromise here," she said.

Even Republicans are conditional in their support. House Minority Leader Del. George C. Edwards said he hasn't had to kick Dwyer back into line, but added, "Sometimes freshmen come in, and it's a learning curve how to do things in Annapolis."

Johns Hopkins political science professor Matthew Crenson said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s election in 2002 as the first GOP governor in more than three decades has prompted more Republican activism in Annapolis.

Edwards agreed. "That stimulates Republicans to be more involved, maybe speak out a little more," he said. "You've got someone at the top of the ladder pushing Republican issues and causes."

Dwyer is quick to say that he believes in "principle, not party." But his opposition to legalized slot machines is the only disagreement he can note with Ehrlich.


The delegate's conversation is replete with catchphrases, from his use of the term "grenades" to his frequent references to the country's Founding Fathers. Most of Dwyer's regular sayings stem from his readings of the Constitution or some of his 190 history books about America in the 1700s and 1800s.

He has frequently said, "I'm not trying to push my views on you. I'm just looking at history, and it happens to be Christian in nature."

His Annapolis office has the following on its walls: a bumper sticker that states "Self Defense Is Not A Crime;" a portrait of Annapolis by his mother; a signed poster of Roy Moore, the ousted Alabama chief justice; an engraving of the Ten Commandments; and a framed copy of the Bill of Rights.

He says the state and country have lost their moral balance. He opposes gay civil unions and gay marriages.

"I am opposed to any legal recognition of something which I believe to be a sinful act," he said.

He also believes religion has been unfairly excluded from government. He stresses that he is tolerant of other religions -- and therefore not a "religious far-right wonk" -- but he doesn't believe he should be chided for pointing to God's role in government.


"Without God, what is an oath?" he asks. He recently read the First Amendment aloud and stressed that it doesn't call for separation of church and state. Instead, he said, it requires that the federal government stay out of religious issues.

That belief is the common link between Dwyer and Moore, who attracted national attention by installing a 5,300-pound Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama Judicial Building and then refusing to remove it. As Moore fought last year to keep the monument and his seat on the bench, Dwyer traveled to Alabama to lend support.

Even Republicans were surprised that Moore, a hero of religious conservatives, made Maryland the site of his first address to a gathering of state legislators.

Moore gives Dwyer credit for that grenade.

"He stands for the Constitution, the First Amendment," Moore said. "Basically he supports what I support."

Donald H. Dwyer Jr.


Hometown: Glen Burnie

Elected: 2002

Born: Feb. 11, 1958, in Annapolis

Committee assignment: House Judiciary Committee

Family: wife (Cheryl), two daughters and a son