Shortly before Christmas a group of Baltimore County posed with officials of Local 37 of the International Union of Operating Engineers as they cut the ceremonial ribbon on a union headquarters that promises to be one of Dundalk’s latest job-producing additions.
State Senator Norman Stone, whose district includes Dundalk, reckons he has attended at least a thousand such events over 51 years as a Maryland lawmaker. But now he says he’s pretty much done with that phase of his life. The General Assembly session that starts Wednesday will be the last for the third longest serving state legislator in the nation.
“It’s tough, because being there all those years …you kind of fall in love with it, you know,” Stone said over lunch at nearby Costas Inn. “But you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.”
At 78, Stone has seen it all in Maryland politics. He’s been the favorite of local political bosses and a powerful force in Annapolis. He ran some of the most influential committees--Judicial Proceedings and Economic Matters. But thanks to his unswerving conservative views, Stone has also been a source of great frustration within his own party. In recent years, he’s been relegated to a mostly ceremonial spot in the Democratic leadership.
Senate President Mike Miller, whose tenure stretches almost as far back as Stone’s, said during a recent interview that his colleague has reached emeritus status. “I mean he’s got quite a bit of age on him,” Miller observed. “He’s got quite a bit of experience on him, but in the Senate we don’t do things like on Capitol Hill. On Capitol Hill the longer you serve and the older you get the more important you are.”
Clearly, Stone has become a dinosaur in this blue state. He’s pro-life, pro-gun, pro-death penalty, anti-gay marriage, and anti-tax. Back in the 70’s he was on the losing end of an eight-day filibuster waged by conservatives to block construction of the Baltimore subway. During the 80’s, Stone wouldn’t give Miller even a procedural vote during a lengthy abortion fight. “I voted my conscience,” Stone said. “I always voted the way I felt... I voted what I thought the people I represented, the way they wanted me to vote.”
Also in sync with his blue-collar district, Stone is a strong supporter of organized labor. But he falls in the category of what used to be called Reagan Democrats. Former GOP Governor Bob Ehrlich counted Stone as a reliable ally, if something of a throwback. “During the era when there were a lot of Norman Stones walking around he was held in very high regard,” Ehrlich said. “He’s still held in high regard but his views are a distinct minority in the Democratic party.”
Former Republican congresswoman Helen Bentley, who also represented the east side of Baltimore County and is a fierce advocate for the port, fondly recalled the time when nominal Democrats would support Republicans—at least privately. “Norman Stone’s departure really marks the end of that era,” Bentley said. “He was I guess you’d say, the old school.”
Soft-spoken and humble—rare qualities in politics—Stone is a product of Highlandtown in East Baltimore. He found kindred spirits in the communities that sprang up nearby to staff seafaring industries of the port. He worked his way through high school and college as a bricklayer. He picked up saxophone in his spare time. “I organized this group called Norman Ray and the Jazz Bombers and we played all night clubs in the Baltimore area, and some in Harford county,” Stone recalled. “And so we played pretty much all over this metropolitan area.”
After he graduated from the University of Baltimore law school and passed the bar exam, Stone gave up brick-laying--and the band. But he still carries a saxophone in the trunk of his car in case he gets a pick-up gig on the fly.
Stone was drawn into politics like many young people of that time by the compelling tug of the Kennedys. He did some volunteer work, got a call from the local political boss and soon he was on the ticket for a state delegate seat. Within four years, a vacancy in the state Senate opened up and Stone won the first of 12 terms in that chamber.
Over the next five decades, he witnessed huge change in the legislature, in the state and in the times. His district would lose the steel plant at Sparrows Point that had been its life’s blood. But Stone’s memories center on people, like Edward Conroy, a state senator from Bowie who lost an arm during the Korean War, then died from cancer almost before the Senate’s eyes. “He was a very close friend, a war hero,” Stone explained.
Conroy, who occasionally jabbed his friend with his artificial hand, was Stone’s roommate during the last weeks at the end of each session when hours ran too late to drive home. But Stone was not part of the after-hours drinking, dining and dancing scene that entranced much of the legislature during the 70’s.
He did, however, marry one of Conroy’s former secretaries nearly 30 years ago. His wife, Joanne, has been running Stone’s office almost ever since. “We say she’s been grand-mothered-in,” Stone quipped.
Much of the buzz for the 2014 session surrounds proposals to raise the state’s minimum wage. Stone will likely be supportive. But this self-described animal lover who brings his dog Gracie to work listed a different top goal for the session. He wants to create an animal abuse registry that would help keep dogs, cats and other creatures out of the hands of proven abusers.
Norman Stone’s likely successor is Del. John Olszewski, who is campaigning with polite deference to the incumbent. But while some political customs remain the same, Stone’s career reflects a significant change in the way folks rise to power in Annapolis, Miller said. “We look at gender. That wasn’t a factor a long time ago. We want women in leadership. We look at race; that wasn’t a factor, we want that. We look at jurisdictions. So we want every jurisdiction in the state represented in leadership,” Miller said. “And at the same time we focus on people who are young, who are active and who can see beyond their district.”
Stone’s victory may be that he is leaving on his own terms. Governor Parris Glendening nearly cashiered him in 2002 with a redistricting map that lumped his Edgemere home into Anne Arundel county legislative turf. But the state’s highest court stepped in to save him by rejecting the map. Still, Stone acknowledges there is pain in the parting. “It’s not only the issue of making laws, you make a lot of good friends, friends that you become very close to,” he said. “Whether you’re on one side or the other it doesn’t make any ..., in the end, you’re still friends.”
Even so, for a guy not seeking re-election, the next 90 days should be a snap.