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'Everybody’s excited': Harford's three freshmen legislators reflect on first week in Annapolis

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Gov. Larry Hogan issued a call during his inaugural address Wednesday for Maryland’s leaders to maintain the spirit of bipartisan cooperation he observed during his first term — as an alternative to the partisan divisions in Washington, D.C., that have contributed to the partial government shutdown.

That bipartisan spirit is alive in Annapolis, according to the observations of Harford County’s three freshmen legislators as they reflected on their first week in the 2019 Maryland General Assembly.

They and their colleagues — new and returning — from across the state were sworn in during the opening of the legislature’s 90-day session on Jan. 9.

About a third of the General Assembly’s members are new this year.

“There was a lot of turnover, a lot of change, and everybody’s excited,” Harford Del. Lauren Arikan, a Republican, said Wednesday. “There’s a real feeling of bipartisanship and respect and working together.”

Harford’s legislative delegation includes eight in the House of Delegates and three senators. Two delegates, Arikan and Democrat Steve Johnson, and one senator, Republican Jason Gallion, were elected to their first terms in November.

All three senators are Republicans, and Dels. Johnson and Mary Ann Lisanti, who was re-elected to her second term, are the only Democratic House members in the delegation.

While the majority-GOP makeup of the delegation reflects Harford County, where Republicans hold nearly every local elected office, the Democrats hold a super-majority in both houses of the General Assembly.

Arikan said “all the rumors” she has heard, about “how delegates respect each other, and they care about you no matter what side of the aisle” you’re on, are true.

“I’m looking forward to keeping that going and building relationships, no matter what party people are in,” she said.

Arikan, Gallion and Johnson were among legislators who attended Hogan’s inauguration Wednesday . Hogan, Maryland’s 62nd governor, is just the second Republican chief executive to earn a second term. Gov. Theodore McKeldin, who led the state during the 1950s, was the other.

Hogan recalled his pledge during his first inauguration in 2015 to “uphold the virtues that are the basis of Maryland’s history as ‘a state of middle temperament,’ ” according to a copy of his remarks.

“I believe it’s because we kept that promise to put problem-solving ahead of partisanship and compromise ahead of conflict that I’m standing here again today, just as humbled and eager and awed as I was at the start of my first term,” Hogan continued.

“It was a good note to start on,” Arikan said.

Bipartisanship

Gallion called the inaugural address “a good, bipartisan speech,” noting how Hogan talked about Republican role models known for working across the aisle or independence from their party, such as the late former President George H.W. Bush, the late U.S. Sen. John McCain and the governor’s father, Lawrence Hogan Sr.

Johnson said the governor has, “from the time I’ve come down here, every time I’ve seen him,” emphasized bipartisanship.

“Really, Democrats and Republicans all want the same things in life, it’s just sometimes there’s different ideas about how to get there, how to get it done,” he said. “We just have to work together to find that common ground, to get some of those things done to serve the people that put us here.”

Johnson also noted how a third of General Assembly members are new.

“A lot of those people, I feel, talking to them, are pretty middle-of-the-road people, and [they] truly want to do the best job they can do in serving the people,” he said.

Gallion said everyone he has met in the Senate has, so far, been “very cordial, very welcoming” as legislators set up their offices and get acclimated. He noted things could become more political, however, as the session goes on and bills are introduced.

“To start out it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat,” he said. “Everybody has been very helpful and welcoming.”

The first week

Harford’s House delegation held their first meeting since the opening of the session. Members re-elected Republican Dels. Teresa Reilly and Andrew Cassilly as the group’s chair and vice chair, respectively, according to Johnson.

The three-member Senate delegation selected Sen. Robert Cassilly as chair during a meeting Thursday, according to Gallion’s office.

Johnson described days spent on the House floor and in committee hearings, and evenings attending receptions with multiple organizations, such as associations for the state’s firefighters and Maryland State Police troopers.

He stressed the need for legislators to divide their time between the floor and committees and to “get out and see what’s important to the people and different organizations.” He said he wants to spend his initial weeks in Annapolis listening and learning.

“Sometimes it’s better to engage your brain instead of opening your mouth, so for the first little bit I want to learn as much as I can and learn the process so I can be successful at the process,” he said.

Johnson said he wants to take time and ensure he sponsors bills “that will make a difference and that I think have a possibility of being passed.” The House Health and Government Operations Committee member — and operator of a family-owned pharmacy in Aberdeen — cited some issues of concern for him that affect Harford and Maryland residents, such as rising health care and prescription drug costs.

Arikan, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, said she has read a number of bills during her first week, and plans to co-sponsor some legislation, but she does not plan, for the time being, to introduce her own bills.

“In general, I think we have too many laws [in Maryland] as it is,” she said, noting she would prefer to “tweak” existing legislation.

“I’m looking for opportunities where we can go back and make the existing laws more business-friendly, more civil liberties-friendly, things like that versus adding new [regulations],” Arikan said.

She recalled a briefing for her committee on the “red flag” firearms safety law passed last year, through which judges granted about 50 percent of the 302 requests for extreme risk protective orders, allowing the temporary removal of guns from people whom courts determine present a risk of causing injury.

Such laws were passed in Maryland and seven other states last year after the deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Arikan took issue with confidentiality requirements in Maryland’s red flag law, saying she wants to know more about why the requests were issued, the nature of the issue that prompted the request and to determine whether the confidentiality aspect “is benefiting the community at large.”

Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin told committee members Tuesday that he could not reveal details about individual cases, although he said four involved “significant threats” toward schools and that there has been “some nexus to some sort of mental health breakdown” in the majority of protective orders served, The Baltimore Sun reported.

Arikan has not held elected office before, but has experience in Annapolis as the founder of Love Maryland PAC, testifying on matters involving parents’ rights and their autonomy to make decisions about their children’s medical care.

Gallion is sponsoring his first bill, scheduled to be introduced Thursday, to extend a provision in state law that allows farmers to operate their farm vehicles on roads within a 25-mile radius of their farms.

The 25-mile radius, for a registered “farm area motor vehicle,” is scheduled to sunset this year, five years after the radius had been extended to its current distance, and Gallion’s bill is meant to keep that radius in place.

Gallion said the extension, which has been requested by the Maryland Farm Bureau, is “something that helps out in the agricultural community.” A farmer himself in Level, he said he has support from both parties for his bill.

“That should be a pretty simple one to get passed, hopefully,” he said.

Gallion is also the co-sponsor of Senate Bill 90, submitted at the governor’s request, to create an independent Legislative and Congressional Redistricting and Apportionment Commission.

He said he campaigned on setting a “fair process” for resolving issues of gerrymandered legislative districts. He served on a Harford County redistricting commission in 2011, which made recommendations on setting boundaries for County Council districts.

Gallion said he has busy days but enjoys the fast pace of being a state legislator. He discussed being in Annapolis at night and seeing the lights of the State House, noting “it’s neat being in a place with so much history.”

“It’s been a good experience so far,” Gallion said.

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