Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (Mark Gail/The Washington…)
The legislative aide wanted a moment with the portly man in the rumpled suit, the man everyone in Annapolis knows as “Mr. Chairman,” who at that moment was marching through the halls of Maryland’s state Capitol.
Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, stopped to listen to another pitch on another legislative proposal, this one to ban prison guards from shackling inmates more than three months pregnant.
“Are they shackling them down when they’re delivering?” Vallario asked the staffer.
“Were they shackled for transportation?”
“Where’s the problem?”
“I’ll look at the file,” the chairman promised, then moved on, mumbling to no one in particular: “We don’t want to pass that bill.”
Ever since he took over Judiciary a generation ago, Vallario’s verdict — up, down or indifferent — has shaped the way Maryland deals with crime and punishment. There he was Friday, presiding for nearly 14 hours as more than 1,000 people traveled to Annapolis to argue the merits of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s gun-control bill. The governor’s death penalty repeal, about which Vallario has reservations, also will come before his committee.
Vallario, who turns 76 this week, is not a man who embraces change. Elected to the assembly in 1974, when Gerald Ford was president, he has survived seven governors, 10 elections and innumerable critics who have portrayed him as too easy on drunk drivers, rapists and spousal abusers, among others. And he has been accused of helping kill the kind of gun-control bill now before his committee because he’s also an attorney who represents clients charged with gun crimes.
Yet the chairman now finds himself facing the kind of change that could threaten his political survival, a change caused by redistricting, which has remade his district’s boundaries so that half now includes Bowie, a northern chunk of Prince George’s where he has never campaigned.
Driven by population shifts and political manuevering, the redistricting altered legislative lines across Maryland. Yet, Vallario’s friends question whether the senior Democrats who most influenced the new map were trying to push Vallario into retirement.
Whatever the case, Vallario’s foes are tantalized by the twist.
“I love it,” said Jan Withers, president of Mothers against Drunk Driving, which has long clashed with the chairman. “Over many years, it’s been very difficult to get what we consider to be lifesaving legislation passed in Judiciary because Mr. Vallario is an obstructionist. I would hope that people in his new district look at his record.”
Vallario expressed no worries as he sat behind his desk on a recent afternoon, promising to run for reelection while dipping into the tall barrel of bright orange cheese balls he keeps behind his desk.
“I’ll do what I normally do and we’ll be in pretty good shape,” he said, alluding to a campaign regimen that typically includes drop-ins at civic gatherings, scouts meetings and schools. “There’s an old saying: It’s not how good you are. It’s how good the competition is.”
The idea of retirement, he said, “is horrible,” even after 38 years of marathon legislative sessions, Rotary Club-style dinners, and commutes between Annapolis and his Upper Marlboro estate — all while managing his robust law practice.
Then there are the assaults on his integrity. Like when then-Del. Sue Kullen (D-Calvert), speaking for the Women’s Caucus in 2010, referred to Vallario’s “tyrannical leadership” and decried Judiciary’s “rude” treatment of witnesses.
“People do anything to get in the paper,” Vallario said when asked about the criticism. “Look where she is now.”
Kullen lost her reelection campaign in 2010. Vallario, meanwhile, was off to another meeting of the House of Delegates, where he is one of two longest-serving members.
Fearing ‘the domino effect’
At his desk on a recent afternoon, the chairman listened as Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Cecil) implored him to hold a vote on his proposal to ban therapists from having sex with their patients.
The bill is the kind that can trigger debates so graphic and raucous that Smigiel, a Judiciary member, compares the committee to a pirate ship, with Vallario as captain. A couple of years ago, Smigiel gave out skull-and-bones stickers with the words, “Under a Black Flag We Shall Sail.” Some of his colleagues stuck them on their laptops. Vallario doesn’t use a laptop, or a computer, for that matter. But he still appreciated the gesture.
No, the chairman told Smigiel, there will be no vote on his bill. Not yet.
Vallario often refers to “the domino effect” when considering legislation. He views himself as a filter, making sure his colleagues aren’t overcome by emotion or a yearning for headlines to “pass bad bills.” If he doesn’t like a bill, Vallario can sentence it to a purgatory otherwise known as his desk drawer.