Afzali proves a freshman, conservative lawmaker can be influential

March 13, 2011|By Tammy Baker

The most important qualification for a successful legislator from Western Maryland — and this applies whether said legislator is Republican, Democrat or Martian — is the ability to win friends and influence people.


Because in a democracy (or for the purists among us, in a republic), majority rules. And in Maryland, the majority is comprised of Democrats who live in the middle of the state. Consequently, these powerbrokers rarely need much support from rural legislators, regardless of party. They usually only have to convince each other, which isn't altogether difficult since their needs are similar to each other's, but often much different than ours.

For example, where we might see big government and the taxes required to pay for it as a drain, they know that between the state and federal agencies in their districts — and all those agencies' dependents and contractors — big government is the major catalyst for their local economy. So they don't mind it so much. And if it's troublesome for us, well, that's not really their problem.

That rural lawmakers consequently have an uphill battle is an understatement. And for all the energy expended on their impassioned arguments or their party agenda or their support back home, legislative victories tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

Which is what makes Kathy Afzali so intriguing.

A freshman Republican delegate from Frederick, this self-described "unapologetic conservative" has somehow managed to figure out how to get even Martin O'Malley to back a tax cut. And in her first two months in office, no less. And — here's the real kicker — in a year when he's had to do all kinds of acrobatics just to fund a budget. It's nothing short of amazing.

Here's the deal: Afzali believes part of the reason farms are divided and sold upon the death of the owner rather than passed to the next generation is the estate tax burden in Maryland. So she proposed a bill to allow farmers to exempt more of their land from the estate tax, giving them more of an incentive to pass down their farms intact.

Getting such a bill approved, however, especially when most members of the General Assembly didn't even know her yet, was a long shot.

But by the bill's hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee last week, the governor was on board, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation was on board, and Frederick Democrat Ron Young had sponsored a companion bill in the Senate. No votes had been taken as this column was being written, but support was spreading. Heady stuff for a first-term, Western Maryland Republican.

So how did she do it?

Simple, really. So simple, in fact, it's astonishing other Republicans haven't tried it a little more often.

First, she identified and prioritized the problem.

Then she figured out who could most likely help her get the thing fixed. And she didn't worry about party affiliation.

Finally — and most important — she made it appealing to them.

Seeking broad-based support, she made a point of getting Democrats to co-sponsor the bill. Then when O'Malley addressed a gathering of farmers, she seized the opportunity to pull him into the fold. She approached him after he'd made his remarks, and got his attention by telling him she had the "greenest" bill in the Legislature. By the end of their conversation, she'd convinced him her bill would help preserve farmland and keep it out of the hands of developers. And before you could say "let's make a deal," the O'Malley administration was endorsing it.

In other words, she took a tax cut proposal and sold it as an environmental bill. And it worked. As well it should, since the bill is really both.

It worked not just with the governor, but with the House, too — at last check, she'd lined up more than 40 co-sponsors there, including some of the General Assembly's most liberal members.

Let's review:

She didn't get the bill this far by enveloping it in a partisan agenda.

She didn't do it by throwing an angry "my way's better than their way" news conference.

She didn't do it by blaming a big-spending, tax-mongering, longstanding Democratic majority for all the farmers' financial issues.

No theatrics, tantrums or railroading.

She instead employed a strategy so often sorely lacking among the Republican leadership that nobody should be surprised the state GOP has been on life support since, you know, recent memory.

She did it by simply being reasonable.

Fancy that.

You go, girl.

Tamela Baker is a former reporter and editor for The Herald-Mail.

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