Attorney General Brian Frosh emerges as big winner from General Assembly session

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh doesn't have an A-list air about him. But late in the afternoon on the General Assembly's final day, he was greeted like a celebrity when he walked onto the floor of the Maryland Senate.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas "Mac" Middleton threw an arm around him. Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Chairwoman Joan Carter Conway kicked up a foot, and all three smiled broadly for a photo.

"We love our A.G.," Middleton said.

Frosh emerged from the annual 90-day session as one of the major winners, drawing on ties he cultivated in 28 years as a member of the General Assembly — first in the House and then in the Senate. There was an appetite among his fellow Democrats to empower the state's top lawyer, even as some Republican lawmakers scoffed.

The Assembly granted Frosh the ability to sue the Trump administration if he thinks it's threatening Maryland's interests — a significant boost in power for his office, which had traditionally been fairly limited. The Assembly also passed first-of-its-kind legislation giving him authority to take drug makers to court over sharp pharmaceutical price increases. And they turned back an attempt by the influential bondsmen lobby to roll back a change Frosh prompted in the state's money bail system.

"Barring any crazy changes it went well," Frosh said in an interview with about eight hours left in the session.

Legislators said their trust and respect for Frosh made them comfortable with granting his office new authority — more comfortable than they might have been were someone else in the job.

At key points during the session, Frosh came to Annapolis from his Baltimore office to make his case for legislation. His Monday visit to the State House was a chance to keep an eye on a last few bits of business and spend a few minutes with his former colleagues.

"The way to get stuff done is to show up," Frosh said. "I served with many of these people, they're my friends and I like seeing them, but it also I hope sends a message that it's a high priority."

The attorney general sat through hours of hearings last week on a bill that would have largely undone a change severely limiting the role of money bail in the system of freeing people from jail — changes that the judiciary adopted after Frosh advised it was likely unconstitutional to hold someone merely because they couldn't afford bail.

Del. Kathleen Dumais, the vice chairwoman of the House committee handling that measure, said putting in that time counts with lawmakers and "shows his dedication and commitment to making real change."

"He had a great session for all good reasons," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

Under the state's constitution, the attorney general's office mostly relies on the go ahead from either the governor or the General Assembly to take action. That makes it among the most constrained state attorney general's offices in the nation.

But this year, the legislature voted to give Frosh broad discretion over bringing lawsuits against the federal government, rather than requiring him to come back for authorization on each case.

Frosh was quick to use his new powers, joining a lawsuit over Republican President Donald J. Trump's executive orders barring entry to the United States by people from a group of majority Muslim nations. His office also wrote to the Department of Homeland Security proposing that Maryland's schools, hospitals and courts be declared off limits to immigration agents.

During a legislative session shaped by Trump's election, Frosh has been able to take direct action against the federal government — the kind of steps progressive voters who will be key in next year's gubernatorial primary have been craving since the inauguration. But Frosh has consistently ruled out a run for governor.

Sen. Richard Madaleno, who is considering such a run, said the knowledge that Frosh was not seeking a new job made it easier to empower him.

"Because he has spoken about not seeking a different office, I think there is a lot of faith in him as a result," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "He's going to do this in a judicious manner that's in the best interests of the state rather than trying to further his career."

The acclaim for Frosh is not universal. Protesters outside the State House on Monday expressed their disapproval of the attorney general. One of their signs simply read: "Froshhole."

The resolution that empowered Frosh to take on the federal government passed without a single Republican voting for it. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, declined to sign a related measure providing funding for Frosh's anti-Trump efforts, instead letting it go into law without his signature.

Sen. Robert Cassilly, a Harford County Republican, said he was concerned that the measures boosting the attorney general's status went beyond what was contemplated when the office was created in the state constitution. The attorney general is supposed to represent both the General Assembly and the governor, Cassilly said in an interview, but now has great independence.

During a debate on the drug pricing bill, Cassilly suggested that his colleagues were a little too enamored of Frosh.

"I for one do not abide in the motto 'Brian do we trust,'" he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

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