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Eye on Annapolis

The Daily Record's Maryland state government blog

Conway packing up office but remains undecided on her departure

Boxes are being packed in the office of Sen. Joan Carter Conway.

All that’s left now is for the Baltimore city Democrat and formidable Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee chairwoman to decide if she is going to leave the Senate seat she has occupied for the last 21 sessions and when.

“It’s all about personal commitment,” Conway said in an interview Thursday night.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Sen. Joan Carter Conway (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

How serious Conway is about leaving is anyone’s guess.

Conway was said to be angry with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. over a vote taken Wednesday on a procurement bill affecting the state lottery that she sponsored.

An hour before attending the annual end-of-session party for her committee at Carrol’s Creek Cafe, Conway said in an interview she was packing and considering leaving.

But later, at the party Thursday night, any animosity between her and Miller disappeared. She was seen embracing the Senate president, and some said it seemed like normal business.

The departure, should it happen, would be another loss of leadership and institutional knowledge in a legislative body that has seen a large amount of turnover since the 2014 election and is facing an aging Senate membership, and some Democrats who have tough re-election bids in an election year that begins in earnest when the 2017 session ends.

Conway’s departure would also mean that Baltimore would lose a powerful voice at a time when the city is continues to seek state help to reinvigorate itself.

Rumors circulated this week that Conway, who had just lost a tough fight on a bill to alter the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Agency’s procurement process, was boxing up her office, taking down photos that had been hung on the wall, and telling people her last day would be Friday.

She has also been rumored to be in line for a position in Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration almost from the second the final votes were tallied in the city last year.

Others expressed skepticism saying she had done or said this kind of thing before and always returned.

“It’s not about anything that has happened down here,” Conway said in the interview, even as she acknowledged that she has been thinking about a time when she’s no longer “Senator Conway, the chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.”

“I’ve been boxing it up for four weeks,” Conway said.

Conway has served as chair of the committee since 2007, when she took over for Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County. Prior to that, she served as vice chair of the committee for four years.

She has built a reputation as a staunch advocate for Baltimore City, where she was born in 1951, and of Morgan State University. She occasionally reminds the Senate that she promised the late Sen. Clarence Blount on his deathbed that she would look after the historically black university — a promise she has kept by continuing to demand a resolution for an ongoing dispute between that institution and Towson University over a graduate business degree program.

She’s also known for her quick wit on the floor and in committee hearings, being direct and savvy and as tough as a $2 dollar steak in a political scrap.

At the beginning of session, she warned Miller that while she respected him, she wouldn’t hesitate to oppose him. In another instance, she brought a controversial septic bill to the Senate floor, warning opponents that she was prepared for war.

When Republicans — and some Democrats — voted down her bill by one vote, Conway was able to immediately work the floor to convince Sen. Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s, who voted against her bill, to ask for a reconsideration of the vote.

Conway was ultimately able to get a compromise bill passed in the Senate by a 28-17 vote.

In another instance, opponents of fracking singled Conway out for being the reason a ban-bill had never been sent to the Senate floor. Protestors picketed outside her Baltimore district office.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City and chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, looks over bill language with Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford Counties and Senate Minority Leader. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City and chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, looks over bill language with Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford Counties and Senate Minority Leader. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Conway told a reporter and the leader of the protest at the time that the event insulted her and that there was nothing they could do to make amends.

But Conway has had her share of setbacks.

Just this year, she opposed the appointment of Gordon Medenica to head the lottery and gaming agency. She led an effort to have his nomination rejected on the floor of the Senate but Medenica was confirmed by a 27-17 vote.

Again this week, Conway led an effort to change procurement policy at the agency over a dispute related to a contract to overhaul the lottery’s systems for the next decade. Her bill, which only affected the agency, would have forced officials there to only consider the lowest bid and no other factors.

The bill made it through a preliminary vote but was killed the next day on the floor.

Conway, in her interview before the party, said none of that mattered.

“This has nothing to do with anything down here,” Conway said, restating it was about her own personal commitment.

“My mom is 94,” she said. “I have family members with health issues.”

Conway said she had not established a timeline for her departure but thought about leaving on her birthday — April 5, just five days before the end of session. She said she also has had dreams about Blount, her mentor, and her promises to him even as she considers her next step and the needs of her family.

“No, I really don’t have a timeline,” Conway said. “It could be Sine Die (the last day of session). I could be back in January. It’s all about personal commitment.”

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