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Baltimore's Conway undecided on return to Maryland Senate

Baltimore's Conway undecided on return to Maryland Senate
State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, in her Annapolis office. (Michael Dresser / Baltimore Sun)

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a veteran Democrat who represents Northeast Baltimore, said Friday that she is not sure whether she will return to Annapolis next year.

Conway, the only Baltimore lawmaker to chair one of the state Senate's standing committees, said she hopes to complete her four-year term but is unsure whether she will be able to because of serious health issues in her family.

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The 65-year-old senator said she will serve out the current session, which ends April 10. She said she will determine whether to return sometime before next year. Whether she will seek a sixth full term in 2018, Conway said, is "up in the air."

Conway's future has been a matter of speculation recently because of testy exchanges with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and absences from Senate floor sessions. The Daily Record reported Friday that she had packed up boxes in her office and was considering leaving the Senate.

In an interview in her office Friday afternoon, Conway confirmed that she has been frustrated with the General Assembly and with Miller in particular. But asked whether those tensions were enough to prompt her departure, she said "hell, no, nobody can move me."

"It's not just the Senate president. It's a combination of things," she said. "He's a very complicated person."

However, she added, "Nothing that has transpired this year has affected my decision."

Through a spokesman, Miller declined to comment.

Some boxes were stacked in Conway's office Friday, but she said she had been packing for more than a month. Pictures still hung on the walls.

Conway said she's been trying to get out of the Annapolis scene for a long time — going back to at least 2007 — but has hung in because she has felt an obligation to represent her constituents. If she leaves early, Conway said it would have more to do with her husband's deteriorating health and a mother who is 94 years old than any angst about the legislature.

After serving two years on the City Council, Conway was appointed to the Senate in 1996 to take the 43rd District seat of Sen. John A. Pica Jr., who resigned. She has since been elected to five four-year terms.

Since 2007, Conway has chaired the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, making her the most powerful African-American in the Senate.

While she was appointed by Miller, who has led the Senate since 1987, the two have frequently butted heads over the years. Conway, representing a majority African-American city, is well to the left of the centrist Miller, a Democrat who lives in Calvert County.

The two clashed Wednesday over a bill she sponsored that would have curbed the procurement authority of the Maryland State Lottery & Gaming Control Agency. After she spoke passionately in favor of the measure, charging that the agency had treated minority bidders unfairly, Miller spoke and voted against the bill — something he rarely does when legislation has cleared a committee.

Conway left the floor and missed several subsequent roll-call votes.

Since then, she missed floor sessions Thursday and Friday, fueling speculation that she was disillusioned with the Senate.

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Conway said her absences, which were excused, were the result of family health problems. She said she has been returning in the afternoons to chair her committee.

On Friday, during a voting session, she alternated between chairing the panel and turning over the gavel to Vice Chairman Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat. Conway said, if her family issues allow, she hopes to return to the floor in the mornings before the end of the session on April 10.

"It's my grandchildren. It's my mother. It's my spouse who's been ill for quite a while," she said.

Conway said that while family issues are her primary concern, she is increasingly disturbed by what she sees in the legislature.

"All of the good bills are locked in committee," she said. "It is very frustrating to me."

Conway pointed to the increasing concern over the state's heroin and opioid addiction crisis, which has taken a toll on young lives in the suburbs and rural areas. She said the problem was ignored when it was seen as a city issue.

"Our people have been dying all the time with no help," she said. "These are the things that bother me."

Conway said that as reports of her possible departure have circulated, she's received numerous calls urging her to stay.

"They see me as a voice and a leadership for the people — especially the under-served," she said.

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