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C. Fraser Smith: Defining moments in a legislative session

There are moments every year when the Maryland General Assembly defines itself — and us.

Sometimes, the entire 90 days makes us seem generous and forgiving, sometimes less so. Sometimes single actions seem to say something about who we are as people. Lawmakers are us, of course — like it or not.

We’ve had two of these moments already this year with the session less than half over. Last Friday, the House of Delegates voted narrowly for marriage equality, extending basic human rights to same sex couples.

And the Senate voted 47 -0 to censure one of its members, Sen. Ulysses Currie. He might have been expelled for violating certain important ethical guidelines. An example could have been made of him and some thought that was the proper course.

These were extraordinary moments, to be sure. But lawmakers vote every year on thousands of bills, each one of them adding to a body of laws that define our state. We are properly thought of as Democratic Party-dominated. (Republicans have been a struggling minority for decades.)

At the same time, the assembly is far more conservative fiscally than mere labeling would suggest. We are one of a handful of states with Wall Street’s highest bond rating. We abide for the most part by a spending affordability measure imposed by the legislature on itself and given over to an independent body to determine.

By law, we must have a balanced budget. Some Democrats probably would be Republicans if the GOP had more muscle.

Heavy head winds

The House was evenly divided on same-sex marriage. Many Democratic House members would have voted for the legislation if they were as doctrinaire liberal as labeling might lead one to believe. Had they been in lock step with the Democratic governor, the issue would not have been in doubt.

But the bill encountered a heavy headwind, and the outcome was unclear up to the very last moment.

The difference this year? Several things, including a series of unlikely conversions in which “No” votes became “Yeses.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s was the most prominent and important. His full immersion this year mattered. Governors tend to get their way. Last year, he was a tepid supporter. He would sign the bill, he said, but he was not pushing all his chips to the center of the table.

He did that this year. Maybe it was his (whispering now) early campaign for president (yes, of the U.S.)

What was also different was the unusual air of comity and brotherhood that seemed to envelop the sometimes caustic-throated body. Chalk it up to good organizing by the advocacy groups.

But it was more than that. It was exhilarating to hear members of the House stepping away from orthodoxy after hearing the stories of couples denied the right to marry. Bulletin: Having real people at legislative hearings still matters.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, one of the assembly’s gay members, said the process moved her to tears — not just the vote itself but the expressions of love and concern from her colleagues as the debate went on.

Expected outcome

The Currie censure was expected. He had been found innocent of serious crimes. He had, on the other hand, violated the assembly’s ethics law. He had not disclosed his employment by Shoppers Food Warehouse as required. He had been throwing his weight around as an influential committee chairman on Shoppers’ behalf.

The assembly, having been described in federal court as shrouded in a “culture of corruption,” might well have expelled Currie. Senators and delegates had subjected themselves to disclosure rules designed as safeguards against corrupt behavior.

But they had virtually tied their own hands in the Currie case. Many legislators appeared at trial as character witnesses for him. How could they then exact the ultimate career-ending punishment? He was not, as far as we know, a serial offender.

There are moments, course, when Maryland lawmakers make rules for the rest of us as they did in the marriage equality debate. Testimony from unknown Marylanders changed just enough minds and hearts.

And there are moments when they make judgments about their own. In the Currie case, senators were guided by what they knew of their colleague. They chose not to throw him under the bus in service to their own probity.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column usually appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.