Many Maryland legislators don’t quit their day jobs to serve us
by Carrie Madren, Bay Weekly staff writer
When legislators roll into Annapolis each January for the three-month session, few are rested from nine months’ vacation.
About three-quarters of Maryland senators and delegates don’t quit their day jobs when elected. Most legislators are ordinary citizens with everyday jobs, just like ours. During those nine off-session months, they earn their livings. When session rolls around, it’s double duty, and they must eke out time for eating, sleeping and seeing family.
Out of 187 lawmakers in the General Assembly, 45 only one-fourth regard representing you as their one-and-only job.
Politicians aren’t all lawyers, though 33 lawyers were elected to legislative office. More, 35, are businessmen and -women; 12 are public administrators; 12 are educators; about six are consultants. After that, the jobs get interesting.
We’ve also elected bankers, real estate brokers, accountants, clergy, police, computer experts, insurance sellers, physicians, a pharmacist, a steamship clerk and a chauffeur.
Experience from more than 25 different occupations brews in the melting pot of Maryland’s General Assembly where lawmakers come to their elected employment.
These high-profile jobs come with rigorous hours including late-night voting sessions and weekend committee meetings and a schedule booked so tight that meals are often gobbled at desks or in meetings. Lawmakers must forge new and, ideally, better laws. Their tools are teamwork and research. Their bosses are you and your neighbors.
For this work, senators and delegates each earn $43,500 a year; presiding officers like senate president or house speaker make $56,500. It’s a small salary for today’s Maryland living, but it’s part-time wages for work that’s scheduled only three months of the year.
In this the first week of session, Bay Weekly caught up with eight local lawmakers with non-session careers from helicopter pilot to farmer to jeweler to find out how they juggle their professional duties during session.
The Flying Senator
Senator John Astle: Democrat: District 30, Central Anne Arundel County
Sen. John Astle flew helicopters for 38 years, through 12 years in the House of Delegates and 10 years in the Senate until 2005.
“Every day was different; every time was different,” says the senator, who learned to fly in the Marine Corps, then flew combat in the Vietnam War before flying the presidential helicopter for President Richard Nixon, a job he counts among his aviation career highlights despite their party difference. Nixon was a Republican; Astle is a Democrat.
“When I was first elected, I was flying for the Baltimore Police Department,” Sen. Astle told Bay Weekly. “But the job with the police department
didn’t work well with my work with the legislature. I had a specialized job, so when I left, I took a 90-day leave so there was a hole in the schedule that was hard to fill.”
So Astle left the police department for the Washington Medical Center. From 1985 to 2005, he was a medical-evacuation helicopter pilot. Like a flying ambulance, he quickly brought medical staff to emergency patients and flew all back to the hospital.
At the hospital, he found a more flexible schedule. Even during session, he could legislate during weekdays and pilot on weekends.
“That job gave me balance,” Astle says. “A nurse and paramedic could care less if I’m in the legislature, as long as I could get them to where we were going and back safely.”
He often transported patients with life-threatening injuries or grave illnesses that put some trivial legislative details in perspective. “That was real life,” he says. “There are some issues that we get wrapped up in [at the Statehouse] that are really not that important.”
Delegate Pam Beidle: Democrat: District 32, Northern Anne Arundel County
Del. Pam Beidle, who’s been president of her company which specializes in homeowner and auto insurance since founding it in 1979, has six full-time employees who help her get through General Assembly session.
“It is my own business, and I do worry about what’s going on,” she says. “But I’m confident that they’re running it accurately.”
Beidle, who was a county councilwoman for two terms before she was elected to the House of Delegates in 2006, is also a director at Arundel Federal Savings Bank.
“It’s pretty difficult to get time at my other businesses as session gets busy,” she says. “Tuesdays I have bank meetings at 5pm, so I have to leave Annapolis by 4pm.” Tuesdays feature session at 10am, followed by committee meetings in the afternoons.
Some days, she says she feels like she spends “all day answering BlackBerry email and text messages; I’m constantly going from one topic to the next.” During a recent hour-long meeting, some 38 email messages legislative and business accumulated in her inbox.
For all the juggling she must do with three jobs, Beidle’s found that having a business background gives her insight on business-related bills.
For instance, seeing issues from the business owners’ perspective gives her empathy to fight a computer tax bill that came over from the senate in special session.
“I understand how that affects small businesses and banking,” she says. “I know what it’s like to have to make payroll.”
That empathy inspired Beidle to co-sponsor legislation to repeal the computer tax which levees the new six percent sales tax on computer system planning and design; computer disaster recovery; data processing, storage and recovery; and hardware or software installation, maintenance and repair.
“There are a lot of questions about what businesses will be charged for,” she says, “and many small businesses can’t afford a consultant.”
Delegate William Bronrott: Democrat: District 16, Montgomery County
For Del. William Bronrott, two jobs is a must. “The cost of District 16 is quite high,” he says. “Being delegate doesn’t pay the mortgage.”
He pays his mortgage by running his own media and public relations consulting practice.
During the 90 days of the General Assembly, he works about a day a week as a publicist. If projects that demand more hours come up during session, he hires freelance publicists. So, one way or another, his two jobs overlap year round.
“Even throughout the nine months when I’m not in session, I dedicate a huge number of hours back home to delegate duties,” he says.
Though both jobs are year-round, he’s careful not to mix the two.
“I have a pretty strong firewall that divides delegate work from my media communications practice, in part because of ethics laws,” he says. “I’m not able to be part of any state projects that in the past I might have been involved with.”
Prior to running for office, Bronrott advocated for our seatbelt law and drunk driving laws; ethically he says he wouldn’t be able to work on such legislation now.
But he can work on laws to raise the alcohol excise tax to help pay for state-run drug and alcohol treatment programs. And he may indeed introduce such a bill this session if the governor doesn’t include more treatment funding in his budget.
“I’m very concerned about huge numbers of people who are addicted and aren’t treated,” he says. “Untreated alcohol and drug addiction is costing our economy $6 billion which comes out of our taxpayers’ pocketbooks.”
Among his for-pay clients is clean-energy broker Clean Currents. For Clean Currents, Bronrott tries to persuade institutions like schools to switch to renewable energy. He helped broker St. Mary’s College’s purchase of clean energy. His client cannot, however, hire him to lobby for legislative advantage.
There’s no law against Bronrott’s using his communications skills in both his jobs.
“I try to bring together different advocacy organizations to build support for bills while I work the issue on the inside of the legislature,” Bronrott says. “I encourage the media to focus on my issues to engage the public through news and editorials; the media has enormous influence over what the public deems to be important.”
Delegate Bob Costa: Republican, District 33B, Anne Arundel County
Del. Bob Costa’s other career is professional firefighter and emergency medical technician for Anne Arundel County.
It’s a job he loves.
“The best part is the ability to save someone’s life,” Costa says. “To do CPR on someone who’s clinically dead [and save their life], and have them say thank you a month later; that’s actually happened to me.”
Highlights of his job include going into a burning house, knocking the fire out and saving the home so it’s still livable, Costa says. “During Isabel, during other emergencies, people are disoriented and stressed, and to know that I just helped someone during the worst of times,” he says, is his satisfaction.
Rewards are great, but his annual schedule is challenging.
“My vacation time is spent in the General Assembly,” Costa says. While other legislators get to enjoy weeks at the beach, on a boat or far away, Costa manages a rare long weekend getaway.
During session, he’ll take on evening and weekend shifts as a fireman.
“In the past, I’ve taken half the session off from the fire department without pay,” he says. “But that makes the financial aspect a burden for about a month.” To ease that burden this year, he’s trying a new schedule to make his two jobs work: To avoid taking leave without pay, he’ll work a half shift as a fireman from 7pm to 7am on a weekday and another full 24-hour shift on the weekend.
When delegate duties call outside of regular session, it’s a hardship.
“Special session was brutal,” Costa said. He worked firefighting shifts when he could, but with a mortgage, a family and other living expenses, the unexpected session made for a tight autumn. One paycheck slimmed to a mere $80.
Though he’s weaving his time between the two jobs, they rarely mix. If people try to talk politics or legislation while he’s on duty, he’ll wait until his day off to address the issue, he says. When he’s wearing his fireman’s hat, Costa says, “the delegate role is still there. You can’t hide from who you are, but you try to never mix legislative duties at the firehouse.”
Back in his delegate’s job, he’ll be working to rescue the Flush Tax for grants to local governments to help pay for upgrades to home septic systems.
“It’s the same purpose as the original bill,” Costa says. “We need to lower the cost for citizens.”
Delegate Ron George: Republican, District 30, Anne Arundel County
Up Main Street at the State House, Del. Ron George deals in big decisions, but down Main Street at his jewelry shop, he works in tiny gems.
His two downtown jobs link together at times, much like the necklaces and bracelets he crafts.
“I am wearing both hats sometimes,” he says. “I’m accessible at my business; constituents know they can find me there during the year. But it does help, when I really have to concentrate, to be in my legislative office to take care of legislative things.”
George must balance his two jobs during session, when he puts in full-time hours for his business coming in early when the shop’s closed, or bookkeeping from home.
Owning a small business lends him a unique money-efficient perspective on issues the legislature debates.
“Many legislators don’t have that business mindset,” he says. “But businessmen have three things in mind: make sure money goes where it’s supposed to go; make sure there’s no waste; and make sure we get results.” George aspires to getting money to where it’s supposed to go this session by sponsoring a bill to stop state money from being invested in countries involved in state-sponsored terrorism.
The Midnight Farmer
Delegate J.B. Jennings: Republican, District 7, Baltimore and Harford counties
At his beef cattle farm in Joppa (Harford County), Del. J.B. Jennings raises Black Angus cattle.
“It’s a cow-calf operation; a nursery, breeding cattle farm,” Jennings explains. “I have all the mother cows and breed them every year.” Calves six months and older are weaned and sold to another farmer, who puts weight on them for about a year before slaughter.
It’s a 365-day-a-year job, so even during session, Jennings still has to look after his bovines.
Jenning’s other business, a feed store called Mill of Hereford, can stand more flexible attention.
“The feed store job can be done from the phone,” says the delegate, who makes business calls first thing in the morning and during the day as needed. His cattle, however, can’t be multi-tasked.
“The farm is a hands-on business,” he says. “I have to be there; commuting to feed the cattle and coming back down [to Annapolis].” Often during session, Jennings heads up to his farm an hour north as soon as he gets out of committee. Alternately, if he’s working late in Annapolis, he’ll spend the night, rise at 5am to drive north and take care of his animals, which takes about an hour and a half.
“If I’m at home, I can get up at 6am and be done by 7:30, then drive down to Annapolis before 9am,” Jennings says.
A night owl by nature, Jennings prefers to do most of his farming in the dark. It’s common for him to start his daily routine at 10:30pm and continue working past midnight.
“It’s a lot more peaceful out there at night,” he says. “I don’t have to worry as much about cars when I’m driving my tractor on the road.”
Delegate James King: Republican, District 33A, Anne Arundel County
For Del. James King, the General Assembly’s hectic January-February-March session happens to fall on his three slowest business months.
Sounds like perfect timing, but “that’s also the most critical time,” says King, who owns Rockfish in Eastport and Kaufmann’s Tavern in Gambrills. That’s when restaurants need the most time and focus. “You have to keep things trim, make sure you’re not wasting money or buying things you don’t need,” he says.
To keep his restaurants running smoothly while he’s at his delegate job, King emails managers and maintains schedules and spreadsheets online, working in person when he can. On a typical day he’ll come into the restaurant at 6am to count money and run credit cards from the day before. Then he heads up to his Statehouse office about 8am, where lawmaking duties keep him busy until 6pm or later, sometimes as late as midnight. On days when he can leave when the dinner crowd arrives, he heads back to the restaurants and ends his day between midnight and 1am.
In both occupations, he must satisfy customers or constituents and juggle a dozen issues at one time. Sometimes, King says, he feels like he spends all day trying to solve problems at both jobs from the dishwasher breaking to a neighborhood needing a stop sign.
For concerns great and small, a restaurant makes an instant town hall.
“It is a benefit having a restaurant in my district because I can use that as a place to meet with constituents,” he says. “It also makes a phenomenal sounding board to hear the concerns of the community. I have 500 to 700 constituents a week coming into my business; I can walk in on any given day and talk to 25 or 30 constituents.”
Bumping into dozens of constituents daily at the restaurant, grocery store and around the community keeps him honest, he says.
“You see them after a tough vote,” King says, ruefully. But on the upside, he adds, he gets an opportunity to explain his thinking.
This session, King’s constituents have asked him to work on legislation to increase maximum penalties for custodial kidnapping cases, require more lifeguards for swimming children and regulate locksmith licenses.
Del. Sue Kullen: Democrat, District 27B, Northern Calvert County
What Del. Sue Kullen does when she’s not making laws won’t much surprise anybody who’s stopped by her office at 151 Lowe House Office Building for a pick-me-up of homemade peanut brittle or brownies. After a visit or two, you learn that the delegate thrives on making people feel at home: in the political process, in the world and in the Bayfront cottages she and her husband Steve run as a sideline.
Those are The Cottages of Governors Run, the Calvert County Bayfront community where the Kullens themselves have lived for two decades. The location does most of the work of helping people into the good life. Vacationers by the week and month get sweeping views, miles of natural beach, a 400-foot pier and boat ramp. The Kullens add cottage hospitality, including Martha Stewart linens. Stay there and you’ll find they’ve ironed your pillow cases with Caldrea Green Tea Patchouli Linen Spray.
The cottage industry meshes neatly with Kullen’s delegate’s job. “The 90-day session is not prime vacation time,” she says.
Professionally, Kullen specializes in making the world a welcoming place for people with disabilities. After a dozen years with Arc of Southern Maryland, the 47-year-old delegate is on her own in a business she calls Planning Innovations. As a self-employed trainer and consultant, she travels around the country teaching organizations how to better support people with disabilities. To keep at the top of her game, she forges partnerships with similar consultants. That group, The Learning Community for Person-Centered Practices, is working under a federal grant to update the disability services systems of six states.
“I start by talking with people to get an idea of how they want to live their life,” Kullen says. “The outcome is that people with disabilities are more involved in their services, and the agencies support them in the way they want to live.”
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