Josh Kurtz: End of the Line for Vallario?

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In one way or another, you could call several members of the Maryland General Assembly throwbacks.

Sometimes it seems like time stands still in Annapolis — governors come and go, but presiding officers of the legislature, committee chairmen and powerful lobbyists never leave. Political trends may take hold nationally, new political movements form, new coalitions exert power and influence, but in the Maryland State House, it’s the same good ol’ boys club.

No one epitomizes this trend of intransigence in Annapolis more than Joe Vallario, the 73-year-old chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. With his thinning slick black hair (which he is finally allowing to go gray), pencil mustache and courtly Southern manner, Vallario seems to have stepped out of a Robert Penn Warren novel.

It’s always a kick to hear him talk, too, especially when he’s referring to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the water and sewer agency for Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, as “the Washin’ a Bourbon Sanitary Commission” — which always sounds like a good idea.

He also represents, like Senate President Mike Miller, a time and place in Prince George’s County that is essentially gone: when Dixiecrats ruled.

Vallario has been a legislator for half his life. He has been Judiciary chairman since 1993. Many committee chairmen in Annapolis are pawns of the special interests they’re supposed to oversee and regulate, but Vallario is a special case. The special interest he’s usually protecting is the profession he belongs to: the defense bar.

Tougher DWI laws? Traffic safety enhancements? Stronger protections for women and children against domestic violence? Easier divorces? Most of these proposals have faced rough sledding in Vallario’s committee through the years. Civil rights and civil liberties? Never a high priority of the chairman’s.

Now, his long tenure may be coming home to roost — and coming to an end. Vallario faces grave danger in this year’s Democratic primary, from Percel Alston, a retired Prince George’s County police officer who has been president of that county’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89 for the past four years. And there is some chatter that when the state’s filing deadline for candidates rolls around on July 6, Vallario won’t even post, that he’ll pull the candidacy papers he has already filed.

Fueling this rumor is Vallario’s fundraising activity, or lack thereof. While his campaign finance report showed a respectable $128,000 on hand as of early January, there’s been little evidence that he’s done any fundraising since then.

Vallario was also a key fundraiser and donor for the House Democrats’ campaign committee, but he hasn’t been active on that front, either.

And perhaps most incredibly, there are whispers that Miller — a trial lawyer like Vallario, who represents the same southern Prince George’s legislative district — wouldn’t be all that heartbroken if Vallario moved on.

Miller’s political antennae are as finely honed as anyone’s. He knows that Vallario has become an increasingly controversial figure in recent years, with a growing roster of enemies. He also — though he has been a resident of Calvert County and not Prince George’s for about a decade — continues to have a great read on Prince George’s politics. He no doubt realizes that the majority of Democratic primary voters in legislative district 27A are probably far more inclined to support Alston, a 48-year-old African-American, than a relic like Vallario.

Prominent at Miller’s big fundraiser in Baltimore’s Little Italy last week was Rodney Bartlett — a Calvert County guy who is president of the Maryland FOP. Although Bartlett is white, he is a mentor to and champion of Alston’s. Which makes Alston the kind of African-American candidate that Miller can get behind and trust.

So it’s entirely possible that if Vallario decides to retire, someone will be able to detect Miller’s invisible hand shoving him toward the door. And if Vallario holds his ground and a primary unfolds, it will be very interesting to see what Miller and the rest of the Democratic establishment does — publicly and privately.

Of course, there’s already speculation on who would take over Vallario’s gavel on the House Judiciary Committee if he moves on — voluntarily or otherwise. But it’s a little early for that. At least one other House committee chairman, Appropriations chief Norm Conway (D), is also potentially vulnerable this fall. So House Speaker Mike Busch (D) will have to survey the entire landscape and balance the usual array of interests before deciding whom to place where.

Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D) serves as Vallario’s vice chairman on Judiciary. But he isn’t likely to be tapped to succeed him. While he has a law degree, Rosenberg has never practiced law. He may be too cerebral to run such a rough and tumble, high-profile and high-maintenance committee.

And — perhaps most significant — though Rosenberg no longer shares a legislative district with her, he does share something of a political base with Del. Maggie McIntosh (D), who is well entrenched as Environmental Matters chairwoman (and may be Busch’s heir-apparent).

There’s plenty to chew on and speculate about in the coming weeks. That’s why the weeks before the filing deadline are some of the best in Maryland politics — before the grim reality of the campaign season sets in.

Josh Kurtz is a managing editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.