A special bustle at the State House


Annapolis is usually quiet this time of year, with the Christmas shopping rush over and the bustle of the regular 90-day General Assembly session still two weeks away.

Not this year.

The halls of the State House and the winding streets of the historic town were jammed yesterday not only with legislators gathering for a rare special session, but also with their aides, government staffers, hordes of lobbyists and people who just wanted to be heard on the topic of the skyrocketing cost of medical malpractice insurance.

"When I called for information on the tour [of the State House], they said it's not a very popular time to come," said Laurie Sonsino, an Anne Arundel County teacher who stumbled upon the crowds.

In the lounge behind the House of Delegates' chamber, three 18-year-olds were carefully snipping the tags off their new gray blazers.

These former pages were back on the job for a one-day reprise -- or maybe two or three or more, they weren't really sure -- of passing notes, fetching water and doing other errands for the lawmakers who traveled back to Annapolis.

Many legislators cut short their vacations -- or were forced to forgo them altogether. Democratic Sen. Paula C. Hollinger from Baltimore County was in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and didn't make it home until 11:30 p.m. Monday. And that wasn't easy, considering so many flights were booked during the busy holiday week, she said.

Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Democrat from Montgomery County, said her husband and two sons are in Los Angeles, where she was supposed to be as well. "Now I'm working on getting my money back from my nonrefundable ticket," she said.

The 11 absent delegates included a few who stayed on vacation, a few who had previously scheduled surgery and one -- Democratic Del. Anthony G. Brown of Prince George's County -- serving in Iraq as an Army reservist.

For four legislators -- one senator and three delegates -- yesterday was like the first day of school, only at this school everything is moving at a very fast pace. All four, appointed to their positions since the end of the last legislative session in April, were going through an odd baptism by fire.

"I haven't made anyone mad yet," said Democratic Del. Murray D. Levy, who, despite 18 years' experience on the Charles County Board of Commissioners, including 10 as president, ranks last in seniority in the House. He is No. 141 out of 141, appointed to the seat recently vacated by Van T. Mitchell, who took a post in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "The baby duck," Levy called himself.

"There's a tremendous amount of information, and you have little time to get your arms around it," he said. "You're tossed into the caldron, though there's lots of support ... with any questions I have like, 'How do I turn this computer on?'"

But just because everything is on a fast track doesn't mean it was time for politicians to forget their grudges. Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Republican leader from Calvert County who tried unsuccessfully to orchestrate a coup against Speaker Michael E. Busch this year, showed up yesterday to find the rumors were true: He had lost his front-row seat.

Busch moved him from the seat traditionally reserved for the minority whip to a seat in the very last row alongside the rest of the Southern Maryland delegation. O'Donnell did not protest. But a colleague, Del. George C. Edwards, didn't take the seat reassignment sitting down. The minority leader rose to call for a greater spirit of bipartisanship and to ask Busch to reconsider.

"We feel this seat should be filled by the person elected by the minority party to be the minority whip," said Edwards, a Western Maryland Republican, motioning to O'Donnell's chair. "We don't think a change here is good for this institution."

O'Donnell later sought to play down the significance of his seat assignment. "We have important work to do. Hopefully, we'll rise above this," he told reporters. "This is really minor compared to the medical malpractice issues that face us."

Time grew short, even as it was clear this one-day special session would not end in one day. Delegates chowed down on pizza long after the end of the lunch hour. Leaders counted votes and lobbied one another.

Jay Angoff, a consultant for the trial lawyers, was called in late last week by his client while he was in Las Vegas to visit in-laws.

Angoff, who lives in Missouri, hopped on a plane to Maryland -- without an overcoat. He shivered over the past two days while his coat was locked in his car at the Kansas City airport.

Yesterday afternoon, in the grand marble hallway outside where the House and Senate meet, doctors in white coats and others in matching T-shirts crowded around Sen. Andrew P. Harris of Baltimore County, a Republican leader who is also an anesthesiologist. They peppered him with questions, even though they were the ones who were supposed to be holding a news conference to put a face on their efforts to see a reform of the medical insurance industry.

Dr. Allen Ditto said that between the low reimbursements from insurance companies, increased costs and the high cost of malpractice premiums, his family practice in Hagerstown is "tanking."

"I'm afraid nothing's going to be done unless there's a disaster," he said.

"When my son announced he was going to medical school next spring," he said, "my wife started to cry."

Sun staff writer JoAnna Daemmrich contributed to this article.

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