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Maryland's part-time lawmakers seek balance between family life, public service

Lawmakers have to juggle family responsibilities, legislative duties during 90-day session.

As nine members of the McKay family gathered around the dining room table of their rented house in Annapolis, an excited 7-year-old Joshua started to stand on his chair.

"Josh, can you sit down on your butt, please?" his father said, gently but firmly.

It's parental moments like this that Del. Michael McKay would be missing if the freshman Republican had left his wife and seven youngest children — ages 2 to 16 — behind in Cumberland for the 90-day session of the Maryland General Assembly.

"If they're not seeing Dad in the morning and not seeing Dad in the evening, what's the point?" said McKay, 44.

McKay's wife of 22 years, Kimberly, said the move was a family decision made as her husband began his campaign.

"I think it's important for our family not to be split up and three hours apart," she said.

The McKays are far from typical of Maryland senators and delegates, many of whom drive home each night or stay in local hotels during the work week for their part-time job as legislator, which pays $43,500 a year. But neither are they alone in making extraordinary efforts to strike a balance between family life and public service.

The lawmakers with the most compelling stories of separation between their work in Annapolis and their homes in their district tend to be Republicans. That's because they enjoy a near monopoly on seats in the farthest-flung regions of the state after the 2014 election brought a near wipe-out of rural Democrats.

Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican, has rented a house in the state capital with his wife and three children for the last two sessions. His two older children, 7 and 6, attend Anne Arundel County schools from January to April, then transfer back to their Frederick County schools.

Hough, 35, who also has a 2-year-old, said the transfer works because curriculum is not that different from county to county in the first and second grades. As the kids get older and into more outside activities, he expects his arrangement will become less practical. But for now he's enjoying having his family with him.

"I would recommend it to other lawmakers to keep your family together," Hough said. "It will only make you a better lawmaker and more balanced."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat who lives in Annapolis year-round, said several of his Republican colleagues from distant districts have brought their families.

"It's a tough balance to be away 90 days. I don't envy these guys," said Busch.

In addition to the complications of balancing legislative duties and families, many lawmakers also have to keep up with their full-time careers. McKay, who runs four dry cleaning shops in Western Maryland and West Virginia, relies on a 16-year employee to run his business during the week. On Saturdays and on Monday mornings before returning to Annapolis, he's at work.

Busch's commute may be enviably short, but his day caroms between his State House office, family responsibilities and his job with Anne Arundel County's Department of Recreation and Parks. On many days, he says, he drops a daughter off at high school, then stops at his county office to get in some work before going to the State House.

Del. C. William Frick, a lawyer and Montgomery County Democrat, said his work for a Washington law firm follows him to Annapolis. He said he often brings two laptops to the House floor — one to write motions and the other for legislative business.

"The legislative calendar was designed for farmers and fishermen, not for lawyers who bill in six-minute increments," he said.

Juggling family life and the session can be a challenge even for lawmakers who live relatively close to Annapolis.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat, had a good excuse for missing her House freshman orientation: She was giving birth to her third child, a daughter. With a husband who commutes to Fairfax County, Va., she's able to serve only because she has the help of her mother and other family members.

On some nights she goes home to Fulton, but two or three times a week she stays in a hotel. She's expecting more three-night weeks later in the session because she sits on the House Judiciary Committee, which is notorious for Friday voting sessions that drag long into the night.

"I'm in constant contact with everybody on my cell phone," said Atterbeary, 39. "It's a group effort."

Del. Angela Angel, a freshman Democrat from Prince George's County, is a single mother of five children between the ages of 2 and 12. Her ex-husband lives out of state. Like Atterbeary, she is able to serve with parental help. Her mother and father live with her and pitch in to watch the children on the nights when her work keeps her in Annapolis.

Angel, 35, said she is in touch with her children every day using Face Time. She misses her children but believes women like her need to be represented in Annapolis.

"I couldn't spend time away from my kids if I didn't know I was making Maryland a better place for them," she said.

Angel's decision to take a hotel room for the session is the most common strategy among Maryland's 188 legislators. More than half do. Along with $42 a day for meals, the state pays a housing allowance — up to $101 a night for a hotel room, and most Annapolis hotels charge that amount.

Renting a house for the entire session, which runs from January to April, is another option, though it's not as popular a choice as it used to be. Forty lawmakers rented homes in 2009, while only 28 did in 2013.

It was, however, the right choice for McKay.

"The thought of staying in a hotel room for 90 days wasn't my cup of tea," he said.

So it is that Mike and Kimberly McKay load up seven of their eight children — minus 20-year-old Courtney, who is away at college — and their 12-year-old golden retriever into their 15-passenger van on Mondays and make the three-hour trek from Cumberland to the capital.

They spend their week in a three-bedroom — four if you count the den — home in Eastport. Kimberly home-schools the older children, who attend a small Christian school when they're in Cumberland.

McKay said that after he and his wife, now 42, had their second child, they decided to leave the question of how many more to the Lord.

"We firmly believe he won't give us more than we can handle, but that doesn't mean we don't question it," he said.

At the McKay house, the children seem to be enjoying their Annapolis adventure — though some more than the others. Mason, 16, said that with all the children crammed into a smaller house, it's sometimes "hard to focus."

"But I've been able to focus and get it done," he said.

Mason said he finds Annapolis busier than Cumberland and has no interest in following his dad's career path back to the capital city.

"I'm not really one for politics myself," said the aspiring civil engineer.

Fourteen-year-old Madison is having the time of her life.

"I love Annapolis and I love being here and I love learning about politics," she said. Unlike her brother, Madison could see herself someday treading the same Annapolis halls as her father.

McKay said former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who represented Cumberland during his 28 years in the legislature, warned him that service in Annapolis can be hard on families.

Taylor, a Democrat, said he waited until his sons were out of high school to run for the office. During the session, he left his wife at home to run their restaurant while he went to Annapolis each week. As he climbed through the ranks from committee vice chairman to chairman to speaker, his nights in Annapolis got busier.

"When you're a freshman away from home, you're not all that occupied," Taylor said. "It makes a big difference when you have your family and your children with you. Not only does it make a big difference for you, it makes a big difference for your children."

mdresser@baltsun.com

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