Maryland lawmakers get personal

The Senate's first and only openly gay member can point to three reasons why the state should permit same-sex marriages: His partner and their two adopted children.

Two lawmakers from opposite ends of the political spectrum want medical marijuana legalized: a conviction fortified by their battles with cancer.

And a naturalized citizen-turned-legislator wants to make sure that fellow immigrants may benefit from the same educational opportunities he enjoyed.

The hot-button issues before the General Assembly this year already were guaranteed to stir policy debates. But some lawmakers will bring a different level of passion to the argument: For them, it's personal.

"This is really what having a citizen legislature is all about," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, one of the cancer survivors. "We all bring our experiences here, good and bad."

With more than 2,000 bills introduced in each 90-day session of the Maryland General Assembly, members find themselves awash in paperwork and trailed by interest groups. They can begin to tune out.

But when a colleague wants to confide, lawmakers pay attention. Some have served together for decades, fostering friendships that cross chambers and transcend party lines.

Such personal disclosures can change the tone of a debate. It happened two years ago, when a Baltimore delegate silenced colleagues who'd been sniping about the technicalities of a domestic violence bill by rising to tell them that she had been abused.

Earlier that year, a Montgomery County Democrat shocked the legislature by sending an e-mail explaining why he supports the death penalty: His aunt and cousin had been slain 16 years earlier.

Arguing for medical marijuana

Raskin has his own story to share. Last May, the 48-year-old senator was diagnosed with colon cancer. Doctors used radiation to shrink a golf-ball-sized tumor and removed it in surgery. He's midway through a dozen sessions of chemotherapy to improve his chance of survival.

One of the Senate's most liberal members, the Montgomery County Democrat has long advocated legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. He spoke in favor of legislation last year that overwhelmingly passed the Senate but was held up in the House of Delegates.

He'll again lobby for the bill this year — but now from the vantage point of a patient.

"I'm not going to pretend I wasn't a liberal before cancer," Raskin said. "But when you go through it yourself, you really clearly recognize just how desperate people can feel in a health crisis."

Raskin says he hasn't needed medical marijuana himself, because anti-nausea medication is working for him. But he says that's not always the case.

"Desperation" is a word also used by Sen. David Brinkley. In 1989, the Frederick County Republican was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma — curable, but not without intense and debilitating radiation. A few years later, he fought off skin cancer, having a spot removed from his back.

Brinkley, 51, said he didn't need medical marijuana but "easily can see" why some patients do.

"I can relate to that sense of desperation," he said. Absent legalization, he said, the state is putting family members in the uncomfortable position of purchasing illegal drugs.

"If that's what I needed to relieve my pain and suffering, [my family] would have done it," he said.

He plans to introduce the medical marijuana legislation this week. On the House side, it'll be backed by the General Assembly's only medical doctor, Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Opponents argue that legalizing marijuana for medical purposes sends the message that the drug is not dangerous and is socially acceptable.

Love and marriage

Family is at the heart of Sen. Richard Madaleno's drive to make gay marriage lawful.

On the desk in his Senate office is a snapshot of his partner, Mark Hodge, smiling up from a street-side cafe in Dublin, Ireland. Nearby are pictures of the couple's adopted 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son.

"This," the Montgomery County Democrat said, picking up the framed photo of Hodge, "is why changing the law is important to me."

The two were married Oct. 20, 2001, at a Unitarian-Universalist church in Bethesda. Should the legislature approve gay marriage or a civil unions plan, either of which Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he would sign into law, Madaleno says he wouldn't have another wedding.

"We are married. We've already made the commitment to each other," he said. "There's not one couple I know that defines marriage by the license. Where the state comes in, is to give you the security of knowing that you have certain legal protections, rights and duties. The state is there to provide the legal framework to help families survive."

A delegate for four years before winning a Senate seat in 2006, Madaleno, 45, said his colleagues have come to know his partner as well as any other member's spouse. Hodge visits the State House frequently, and on the ceremonial first day of session, he brought the children, who made a fort under Madaleno's desk.

The senator said he hopes his "mere presence" is enough to open the minds of fellow lawmakers. Madaleno is joined by six delegates who are openly gay, according to the gay-rights group Equality Maryland.

"They realize, wow, you guys really are the same," he said. "Our marriage is just as wonderful and mundane as everybody else's."

Other lawmakers say they are taking up the cause of same-sex unions because that's how they were raised — in families steeped in the civil rights movement.

In 1967, the year Del. Keiffer Mitchell was born, his uncle, Del. Clarence M. Mitchell III, finally won passage of legislation to decriminalize interracial marriages in Maryland, his third try. Keiffer Mitchell has the pen that then-Gov. Spiro T. Agnew used to sign the bill into law. (That year, the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in Loving v. Virginia, ended bans on interracial marriage in all states.)

Mitchell's grandfather Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. helped secure voting rights for blacks as chief lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The freshman Democrat from Baltimore said that the work of his uncle and grandfather inspired him to take an active role in the gay marriage debate — "the civil rights issue of our generation."

This week, Mitchell will co-sponsor legislation to legalize same-sex marriages.

"You can't have someone with the last name of Mitchell just sitting on the sidelines of a civil-rights issue," he said.

Republican Sen. Allan Kittleman is in a similar position. His father, the Republican lawmaker Robert Kittleman, was a member of the NAACP and an active participant in the civil rights movement.

Kittleman, who represents Howard County, said he will sponsor legislation in the Senate to allow civil unions for same-sex and opposite-sex couples. He felt so strongly about the bill that after fellow Senate Republicans asked him not to introduce it, he resigned as minority leader.

Gay marriage draws impassioned opposition from people and some religious groups who believe such unions should be reserved for a man and a woman.

Striving for a future

Sen. Victor Ramirez has his father in mind this year.

More than three decades ago, Santos Ramirez fled El Salvador during the country's civil war, arriving in the United States on a visa and making a home in Prince George's County. It took him about five years to get immigration paperwork in order so that his wife, two sons and two daughters could join him. Victor Ramirez was 5 years old.

Now the 36-year-old Prince George's County Democrat is pushing to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at Maryland universities and colleges. Ramirez, a lawyer, attended Frostburg State University and St. Thomas University in Miami.

"I know the broken system that we have, the bureaucracy," said Ramirez, who backed similar legislation as a delegate. "I could be one of those people who say, 'My family played by the rules, so you have to play by the rules.' But to me, it's not a good argument. I'm not going to judge. I don't know what rules they were playing by."

Former state Sen. Alex Mooney, now chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, said his mother's experience — she immigrated legally from Cuba — convinced him that providing benefits to those who came here illegally undermines the hard work of those who take the time to follow the law.

Kim Propeack, an organizer for the immigrant-rights group Casa de Maryland, said it's "absolutely critical" that lawmakers be able to share their personal experiences.

Ramirez "lived in body and soul the immigrant experience," she said. "It's much more difficult to say no to someone who you have a personal relationship with."

Sharing experience

Del. Cheryl Glenn provided a dramatic demonstration of the power of the personal story two years ago. The Baltimore Democrat found that she could not sit still during a floor debate on a domestic-violence bill.

The legislation at issue would have wiped from the public record any trace of an emergency protective order that did not later become a final protective order. Some of the Assembly's most vocal members are defense attorneys, and many had spoken about the rights of the accused to have their records cleared if the accuser failed to show up for court to seek a final protective order.

Glenn, 59, said the "legalese back and forth was troubling" her. She rose, her legs "shaking a mile a minute," and offered her thoughts.

Abuse victims, she told the lawmakers, have plenty of reasons not to go to court. In her case, she said, her husband threatened to kill her children.

"I wanted them to hear a real, true-life story from a victim," she remembered. "It was not a preconceived idea. It was the first time I had ever publicly shared my story."

The House fell silent. Delegates sat riveted as she made her case against the legislation. It failed by five votes.

"So many of my colleagues came up and told me afterward that they had planned to vote for it until they heard me speak," she said.

Last year, her testimony as an abuse survivor helped win passage of a bill that allows victims of domestic violence to terminate rental agreements more easily. And lawmakers struck a compromise on the protective order issue, allowing judges to erase the public record of a temporary protective order that does not become final, if the subject can show he or she was falsely accused.

There was precedent that year for Glenn's floor speech. Days earlier, as the Senate was about to begin a floor debate on a bill to repeal the death penalty, an unusually candid e-mail landed in the senators' inboxes. The subject line: "My personal story … that I think you should know regarding the death penalty."

Then-Del. Craig Rice, a Montgomery County Democrat, wrote about the murder 16 years earlier of his aunt, a quadriplegic cousin and a nurse in their Wheaton home.

Rice said that his mother, who found the bodies, still had nightmares about the killers: She "will continue to do so until they are no longer on this Earth."

The Senate chamber buzzed about Rice's note, and legislators acknowledged it affected the mood on the floor. Then-Sen. Rona Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the perspective of the victims helped her resolve her own indecision about the issue. Hers was a crucial vote in favor of a plan to keep the death penalty in place, but limit its availability.

Rice said colleagues — on both sides of the issue — thanked him for sharing his story.