Positive note opens Assembly

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With warm greetings, robust handshakes and more promises to be good than Santa hears all winter, Maryland's General Assembly convened yesterday for its 421st session.

Though the politicians persisted gamely with their good will through almost the entire hourlong opening ceremony, chances are that by tomorrow, when House and Senate Democrats begin trying to overturn Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s vetoes and election year politics kicks into high gear, the echoes of all those niceties will have faded.

As one dignitary after another took the podium to espouse the virtues of playing nice, senators and delegates nodded solemnly ... then laughed heartily at a series of partisan zingers.

U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democratic former state senator, pleaded for "civility."

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, also a Democrat, advocated "working together."

And "respect," hardly the most contested of principles, was the buzzword for U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, another Democrat.

"No one has a monopoly on what's right," he said. "You can seek to develop a consensus. It's not always possible but you ought to make the real effort."

A few minutes later, Ehrlich addressed the just-seated Senate, gesturing with a splinted finger - he broke it playing catch with his son. "Year four, here we go again," he said. "I hope we can get some things done this year.

"It's going to be a tough year," said the Republican governor. "Once the election is over, the world will go on and everyone will live another day."

But until then, it could be a rough ride.

In the Senate, when it came time for the largely ceremonial re-election of Democratic President Thomas V. Mike Miller, three Republicans voted no.

Minutes later, when he addressed the room, Miller said: "I love each and every one of you - including the senators from Baltimore, Washington and Anne Arundel counties" - the "no" voters.

Senate minority leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus gave Miller his vote but insisted on explaining why.

The Eastern Shore Republican reminded the crowd of Miller's remarks Tuesday at a Democratic luncheon, when he predicted that during this session, GOP leaders are "going to be flying high, but we're going to get together and we're going to shoot them down. We're going to put them in the ground, and it'll be 10 years before they crawl out again."

Because the Senate's ceremony yesterday began with a prayer for "wisdom and discerning heart," Stoltzfus said he was going out of his way to take the high road: "I heard the prayer. ... In that light, discretion is the better part of valor."

Senators found that pretty funny.

As the ceremony wrapped, Stoltzfus said his action was "symbolic of my intention to work together in very difficult times."

"This time we played it with humor," he said. "We don't always."

But the mood was more somber over in the House.

Before a half-hour tribute to Baltimore Del. Tony E. Fulton, a Democratic 18-year veteran of the House who died last May of cancer-related illnesses, Speaker Michael E. Busch unveiled his five legislative goals for the season.

Most important, he said, was passing legislation that would allow state money to be used for embryonic stem cell research.

The Anne Arundel Democrat also listed as his priorities preventing runoff from polluting the Chesapeake Bay; providing benefits for Iraq war veterans and their families, including money for veterans' spouses and children to attend state universities free; more stringent tracking of sex offenders; and adopting property tax relief for low-income seniors and others living on fixed incomes.

Victor Clark Jr., past president of the Baltimore Republican Party, soaked in the pleasantries from the sidelines. He predicted they wouldn't last.

"There's going to be a lot of posturing," he said, "everyone trying to get their name in the paper, you know, people who like to sound like they know what they are doing."

No one wasted any time getting to that.

Even before roll call, in the marble hallway between the two chambers, senators and delegates stood shoulder to shoulder under the harsh glare of television lights, jostling good-naturedly with elected officials from all corners of the state and candidates for any number of offices.

As delegates began to crowd into the House chambers, festively decorated with flowers in Maryland red and gold, Sarbanes tried out his old seat in the fourth row - he served a term in Annapolis after being elected in 1966.

During his long political tenure, the retiring U.S. senator told delegates, learning how to respect others was one of his most valuable lessons.

"They have a challenging session ahead of them and I wish them well," he said, easing into the leather chair. "It will be a very intense 90 days."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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