Lawmaking on the Go: A Day in the Life of a Maryland Delegate

Halfway through the legislative session when workdays seem never-ending what with budget battles and the push and pull of political strife, Delegate Melony Griffith ruefully realizes there's no way to train for the harried life of a lawmaker.

The aerobics and meditation she practices when the Maryland General Assembly is out of session succumbs to the unrelenting demands of committee meetings, floor debates, electronic roll call votes, speaking appearances. These days, her physical and mental calisthenics come from keeping up with the legislative calendar.

"You hold your breath for 90 days," Griffith, a Democrat, told a Stateline.org reporter who spent a day shadowing her in the state capital of Annapolis.

A social worker, wife and mother of two, Griffith, 40, started out in politics as a community activist in what she felt was a forgotten neighborhood. An African American, she ran for the Free State's House of Delegates to elevate the issues affecting Suitland, Md., an enclave of lower-income residents and federally employed commuters bordering Washington, D.C.

Maryland is Griffith's adopted home. Growing up as a self-proclaimed "Army brat," she and her family moved around. She graduated from the University of Montana and got a master's degree from Howard University, the historically black university in Washington, D.C.

Now in her sixth year as a part-time legislator, she's enjoying her ability to push policies she believes in, such as improving public education and combating crime.

Griffith is at her desk by 8 a.m. this day after spending the night at a local hotel because of a legislative social function that kept her late in Annapolis. The price of staying in town is she misses seeing her sonsaged 7 and 12--off to school. She barely gets a chance to grab a bite to eat before colleagues started hustling in and out her book-lined office. Some 2,300 pieces of legislation come before the General Assembly each year, making the Statehouse a beehive of activity.

This is what Griffith describes as one of her slower workdays. Usually, she gets to see her sons briefly before she sets out on the 45-minute drive from her home to the legislative complex in the center of this historic seaport town, where the Severn River flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

In between daily meetings, she often fields requests to sit in or speak at community meetings on weeknights and weekends. Most of the time, Griffith declines.

"Most of my constituents believe I shouldn't serve if I can't devote time to them. They gotta understand that my kids come first," Griffith said.

That's the main drawback she finds in public service: reconciling the needs of those who rely on her - her colleagues, her constituents, her family.

On this day, Griffith has four meetings before the General Assembly convenes, including one with her fellow delegates from Prince George's County. They grapple with issues such as liquor sales on Sunday, rent increases on the elderly, and education funding. Scurrying across the street from her office to the domed Capitol, she joins in voting on a rapid-fire succession of bills before the session is gaveled to a close an hour later.

She squeezes in a closed-door meeting with several other delegates about a subject she declines to disclose, then returns calls from constituents before a memo catches her eye. She has been tapped to head up a working group on public school construction.

Working at her desk, between bites of a late carry-out lunch of buffalo wings from the Senate cafeteria, her cell phone rings. It is a lobbyist. She wonders out loud how he got her cell phone number. The afternoon is devoted to budget hearings.

Griffith, like most fellow members of the General Assembly's Democratic majority, is at odds with Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich on budget priorities. Over the course of the next few hours, she and others on the Appropriations Committee hear from representatives of state agencies trying to head off proposed spending cuts.

At the end of the day, nothing is really resolved. The sun goes down, and she drives home to her family. All the key budget votes are still down the road. There will be many more days like this before the legislative session is done in April.

But even then, this Maryland delegate will have no time to slow down. Once she's finished with her $37,500-a-year legislative job in Annapolis, Griffith will go back to her other profession as a social worker dealing with HIV/AIDS among African-American and Latino seniors at the Maryland Center at Bowie State University.