When it comes to building working relationships with political rivals, Maryland Delegate John Adams Hurson (D) certainly has his namesake beat.
While the feud between John Adams, the nation's second president and a devout federalist, and the anti-federalist Thomas Jefferson is legendary, Hurson, 50, has built a reputation in his 13 years in the Maryland General Assembly as a man who can bring together people of different political stripes. (See photo on official Web site.)
It's this pragmatic approach to public policy problems that Hurson's colleagues in Maryland say will serve him best when he is installed this week as the 32nd president of National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan policy-setting organization for state legislators across the country.
"He's not a bomb thrower," said John Kane, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party. "If he disagrees with you, he always wants to know why you think the way that you think. That, to me, is a total lack of arrogance and makes an excellent legislator."
Over the next year, Hurson a lawyer who works as a lobbyist for Van Scoyoc Associates in Washington D.C. will have to draw on his ability to find common threads among people with different ideologies.
In the Maryland Statehouse, Hurson represents the progressive and largely affluent Washington, D.C., suburb of Montgomery County and is consistently rated one of the state' s most liberal lawmakers. He is taking over the NCSL post from Utah House Speaker Marty Stephens (R), who has described himself as "one of the most conservative presidents that NCSL has had."
NCSL, which researches state policies and voices legislators' concerns at the federal level, each summer installs its new president alternately a Republican or Democratic state lawmaker at its annual meeting, which this year runs July 19 to 23 in Salt Lake City. The NCSL president helps set the group's agenda and directs its 60-member executive committee, which is composed of state lawmakers and legislative staff.
Along with discussions about state economies, outsourcing, gay marriage and public education, especially the federal No Child Left Behind Act, one of the hot topics at this year's meeting will be health care reform. The meeting, titled "The New Legislative Reality," is expected to attract nearly 1,000 legislators from the nation's 50 states, its commonwealths and territories.
The rising cost of Medicaid, the state-federal program that serves 50 million poor and disabled Americans, and the controversy surrounding prescription drug importation are two of the health-related topics legislators will address this week.
In a phone interview, Hurson cited as one of his primary goals encouraging states to look at innovative ways to cover their portion of Medicaid costs and to provide additional benefits to certain poor, elderly adults who also qualify for the federal Medicare program.
Health care issues have been Hurson's main focus as a lawmaker. For the past two years he has chaired the House of Delegates' Health and Government Operations Committee, a panel that House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, created specifically for him to lead. In 2001, Hurson helped pass legislation to provide prescription drug benefits to the state's 200,000 senior citizens. He also was chief architect of a program passed in 1998 that provides health care benefits to more than 100,000 needy children in Maryland.
Hurson partially credits his wife, Susan, an ob-gyn to whom he's been married for 20 years, with sparking his interest in health care, but said he also was drawn in by an intellectual curiosity and a desire to help those in need.
"You can actually change the way people live," Hurson told Stateline.org. "I saw families that were able to get health insurance that were never able to before. It was rewarding."
Earlier this year, Hurson spearheaded a major health-care reforminitiative that would have provided partial coverage to uninsured Marylanders by placing a 1 percent tax on HMO premiums. Although the measure drew criticism from both sides of the political aisle and was derailed in the Senate (some Democrats thought it did not go far enough to help the uninsured, while some Republicans thought it would increase the cost of health care), even the bill's opponents such as House Minority Whip Anthony O'Donnell (R ) say they respect how Hurson handled the issue.
Despite their disparate ideologies, O'Donnell said he and Hurson have teamed up on common issues, such as a bill to protect Chesapeake Bay oysters.
"I'm a conservative Republican from southern Maryland, and he's a Democrat from Montgomery County," O'Donnell said. "But we worked together to get a piece of legislation passed."
Hurson, who earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Georgetown University, has lived his entire life around Washington and now works as a lobbyist just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. He said his familiarity with Washington's ways will give him a leg up as NCSL's leader. In fact, Hurson boasted that he is one of the few state legislators with constituents "inside the Beltway," the roadway that circles the capital and is home to multiple Washington insiders.
"Being from a part of the state that is right next to Washington, D.C., ... I understand how critical it is that states get their input in front of the federal government," he said.
Because he has had a front-row seat to the partisan bickering that plagues Washington, Hurson said he especially appreciates NCSL's bipartisanship. Having Republican and Democratic legislators working towards the same goal can result in more effective lobbying strategies.
For example, he said, "We have Republican legislators going to Republican congressmen saying, This isn't working."
Hurson also said NCSL benefits from its large, research-intensive staff.
"If there is any issue that is moving up to the national level, certainly there is someone at NCSL who is paying attention to it," he said.