Behind The Scenes With Maryland Lawmakers

(Photo by David Stuck)

In late April, Shelly Hettleman met with 10 individuals in an Owings Mills living room to talk with them about how they could become more involved in the political process.

Hettleman, 52, a Democrat in the House of Delegates who represents Baltimore County’s District 11, offered a simple message to the group.

“I told them to continue to speak out and make their voices heard,” said Hettleman, who is in her first term as a state delegate. “I think people are starting to understand their own power in politics, which is a good thing. Some of these people are new to the process, so it’s almost like a ‘Schoolhouse Rock!’ atmosphere of how a bill becomes a law.”

Hettleman rarely gets the chance to attend such intimate community gatherings until the demanding 90-day Maryland General Assembly wraps up.

Both during and after the session, Hettleman is one of a handful of local Jewish legislators — along with Sen. Bobby Zirkin and Dels. Dan Morhaim, Dana Stein and Sandy Rosenberg — who work tirelessly to better the lives of their constituents.

Hettleman had been invited to speak to the group — which formed online after the Women’s March on Washington in January — several months ago. But her legislative responsibilities kept her away, which she regretted.

“I’m immersed in what I do as an elected official every single day of my life. It’s pretty intrinsic in my life, but it’s not to everybody,” Hettleman said. “A lot of people are worried about getting their kids off to school in the morning, putting food on the table and earning a buck and supporting themselves, and I totally understand that.

“[Politics] is not part and parcel of everybody’s lives, so I’m happy to meet with people and help them understand better what I do.”

Del. Shelly Hettleman (Photo by David Stuck)

Time Management

Service in the General Assembly, which convenes every year from mid-January to mid-April, is technically considered part time, though many legislators treat the position as full time.

And just because the session ends, that doesn’t mean the work ends for legislators. Special sessions, summer study committees, caucus meetings and constituent needs also tend to keep lawmakers on the job year-round.

Zirkin (D-District 11), 46, an attorney who specializes in workers compensation, drunk driving incidents, family law and traffic violations, is chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. He said his responsibilities in Annapolis have challenged his time-management skills.

Being chairman, Zirkin said, is “extremely time consuming and something I treat with the utmost importance and care.” Listening and discussing bills on “sex offense, drunk driving and domestic abuse is very emotionally challenging. You’re trying to constantly figure out what to do with the law while hearing and thinking about these emotional testimonies and stories from people.”

Zirkin said he is only one of “maybe four or five practicing attorneys” in the 47-member Senate, which has led him to study particular issues to be as legally well-rounded as possible.

“It’s hard to sleep sometimes listening to what we listen to, that’s for sure,” Zirkin said. “You come home and hug your children a little tighter when you hear the stories we do {on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee]. If we screw something up, somebody gets hurt or killed. You take that really seriously, so my work as an elected official never really stops.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks legislative bodies across the country, says Maryland lawmakers work the equivalent of roughly two-thirds of a full-time job.

Maryland is one of 24 states that uses a “hybrid” model, based on factors such as the duration of the legislative session, compensation and the size of a lawmaker’s staff. Ten states, including neighboring Pennsylvania, are considered full time, while the 16 remaining states maintain a part-time status.

Rosenberg (D-District 41), 67, who represents Baltimore City, contends that much of his work is done off the floor and in his district, including face-to-face interactions with constituents.

In order to be successful in Annapolis, Rosenberg said, “preparation for next session starts immediately after the previous session adjourns. There’s no other way to do it if you want to make sure you’re doing what you think is right for the people you represent.”

Del. Sandy Rosenberg (Photo by David Stuck)

Since being elected to his seat in 1982, Rosenberg has focused primarily on public service.

Prior to delving into politics, Rosenberg held positions with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City and at WJZ-TV in the ’70s and early ’80s.

Although he earned a law degree from Columbia in 1975, Rosenberg has never practiced law. Instead, he parlayed his interest in constitutional law into adjunct teaching at the University of Baltimore and the University of Maryland. Every fall for about the last 20 years, Rosenberg has co-taught a legislation class centered on what took place during the previous legislative session, constructing a six- to 10-page syllabus in the summer.

Teaching the courses, Rosenberg said, allows him to keep his mind on bills that failed or legislation that he wants to introduce.

“The thing that’s great about the class is that while the idea and concept of it remains largely the same,” Rosenberg said, “it’s always changing because of what things take precedent in Annapolis each year.”

For Hettleman, working out of coffee shops, her home or anywhere she can get online has become the norm. It allows her the opportunity to interact with those she represents on a more regular basis and get to work on legislation in a timely fashion, she said.

“Anytime I have the chance to interact with community members wherever I am and with whatever I’m doing, I always relish that chance,” Hettleman said. “So, it’s nice to be able to have the opportunity and flexibility to do that for the other nine months of the year I’m not in Annapolis.”

Day Jobs

While the complexities of balancing legislative obligations keep lawmakers on their toes, there are many who also have to keep up with their full-time careers outside the legislature.

The job of legislator can often take 40 to 50 hours per work. Maryland pays its legislators a little more than $46,000 per year and grants an expenses allowance of up to $52,790.

Del. Dana Stein (Photo by David Stuck)

Stein (D-District 11), 58, is president and executive director of Baltimore-based nonprofit Civic Works, a nationally recognized urban Peace Corps in Baltimore City he founded in 1993. About 5,000 young men and women have volunteered with Civic Works, rehabbing homes, building parks and gardens and mentoring students in Baltimore City and County.

Since 2006, when he was first elected to the House, Stein has spent 3,100 combined hours per year between his day job and role in the legislature. That translates to roughly 12 hours per day during an average work week, a workload that — even with three children under 10 — Stein finds fulfilling.

One advantage to holding a full-time job as a legislator, Stein said, is that it keeps him grounded in the concerns of his constituents.

“It’s one thing to read about the issues city schools face, and it’s another to see it every day,” said Stein, whose nonprofit operates REACH! Partnership School, a college-focused transformation school for Baltimore City high school students. “It really helps me to understand the issues where there are some communities that have a lot of boarded-up houses or young adults who just need more community-service opportunities and job opportunities.”

Dion Wright, 48, deputy executive director of Civic Works, runs the nonprofit in Stein’s absence. Wright said Stein operates with a hands-on approach, checking in with calls, emails and texts and paying visits to Civic Works’ Clifton Mansion in Clifton Park when his schedule permits during session.

“Dana is great, because he really does trust the staff and knows that we will do whatever it is he needs us to do while he is in Annapolis,” said Wright, who has worked at Civic Works since 1995. “I think it’s very rare that someone who cares as much as Dana and is as dedicated as he is to scale back what he does most of the year.”

As a managing partner in Pikseville-based Zirkin and Schmerling Law on Reisterstown Road, Zirkin said his partner, Josh Schmerling, oversees day-to-day operations of the firm’s 12 to 13 employees in his absence. But because floor sessions don’t usually start until the evening on Mondays during session, Zirkin said that allows him to get caught up to speed with the work his firm is handling. He’ll also make his way into the office on weekends.

“I think being a legislator makes me a better lawyer, and I think being a lawyer makes me a better legislator,” Zirkin said.

Schmerling, who started as a law clerk under Zirkin in 2007, said Zirkin is just as invested in his practice as he is to his work in the Miller Senate Office Building.

“For Bobby to do what he does with the law office and in Annapolis, finding a way to balance it all, it really is impressive,” said Schemerling, to whom Zirkin jokingly referred as his work wife. “And when he’s not here, while things can be a little tougher, and we all have to pitch in, we make it work. I think that’s a testament to Bobby’s work ethic and drive, which never seems to let up.”

At 68, an age when many people reach or consider retirement, Dr. Morhaim (D-District 11), a delegate, continues to remain active both in office and in medicine with no plans of slowing down, he said.

Morhaim works as an emergency room physician at Sinai Hospital for four to seven shifts per month, some of which take place on weekends during session.

In the fall, he also teaches at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Del. Dan Morhaim (Photo by David Stuck)

Morhaim believes his 30-plus years of front-line experience and treatment of thousands of patients makes him a welcomed presence on medical issues that come before the House.

His medical experience, he said, influenced a bill he proposed this year that would have established safe drug consumption facilities for addicts, with the hope that a large portion of them got treatment.

Though the bill failed, Morhaim noted that the motivation behind it reflects his ER experience.

“When you deal with people who have been in and out of the ER for drug addiction and drug abuse, you get a chance to interact with them and get a real sense of what the problem is,” Morhaim said. “Once you understand and see a large number of people being affected by the same thing, it really allows you to push to make a difference in the legislature.”

But the line between lawmakers’ “regular” jobs and their legislative efforts is not always so cut and dry.

That’s why Stein, who spent seven years as a Washington, D.C., corporate lawyer, said he does his best to separate the two.

For instance, when Civic Works meets with city and state elected officials and the subject of funding comes up, Stein leaves the room.

“I’ve done that a few times,” said Stein, noting that 60 percent of Civic Works’ annual $10 million budget — excluding REACH! Partnership School — comes from public funding sources. “I know that looks a little odd, but I’ve explained it, and people understand it. I trust the people we have at Civic Works, because they know the programs we run just as well, if not better, than I do.”

Family Ties

Sen. Bobby Zirkin (Photo by David Stuck)

Juggling family, meanwhile, with the session and work obligations can also present a major hurdle for veteran legislators.

Zirkin’s decision to not take a hotel room or rent a house during session is a rarity among Maryland’s 188 legislators.

On many days, Zirkin said, he has breakfast with his two daughters, Sophie, 9, and Emma, 7, and drops them off at Park School before making the trek to the state capital or his office. There is nothing, Zirkin said, that will break the bond.

“Family will always come first for me, no matter what,” Zirkin said. “It’s the most important thing to me, bar none. Every night, whether I’m in session or not, I try and make it a habit to turn off my phone when I’m with my girls. That time is precious.”

Hettleman echoed that sentiment, noting that she waited to make a run for public office when her two children, son Jonathan, 25, and daughter Rachel, 22, were in college.

She misses her family when she is away, but Hettleman strongly believes more women like her need to be represented in Annapolis.

“I think now my children understand when I’m in session and they’re on spring break why I have might have to miss a family vacation,” said Hettleman, who spends most of session in a hotel. “They know what I’m doing has an impact in a lot of other people’s lives. When they were younger, I think it might have been harder for them to grasp that.”
Stein said service in Annapolis can be hard on families at times.

When his three children, daughters Elayna, 10, and Julianna, 8, and son James, 5, were younger, Stein would rent a house for them to visit with his wife, Margaret.

But as they have gotten older and Stein has climbed through the ranks — he has served as vice chair of the Environment and Transportation Committee since 2015 — his nights have become busier.

On some nights, he goes home to Pikesville, but most weekdays, he stays in a hotel.

“If one of my kids has something going on, I’ll try and make it home for a couple of hours and then turn around and come back [to Annapolis] to avoid the morning traffic,” Stein said. “Of course, I miss my wife and kids, so I still have them visit when all our schedules coordinate, and pretty much every day, we are talking on the phone throughout the day.”

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