Josh Kurtz: Rob Garagiola’s Political Highway

Talk about the biggest issues roiling Annapolis this legislative session, and state Sen. Rob Garagiola quickly becomes part of the conversation.

The debate over gay marriage, the quest to find more money for transportation in the state – Garagiola is in the thick of both. The Montgomery County Democrat shrugs at the coincidence.

“Each year there’s a handful of things I’m working on,” he says. “And some things are sexier than others.”

But you get the sense that Garagiola wouldn’t have it any other way.

Usually that’s a good thing, but sometimes it isn’t.

In the State House, when there are just a few legislative superstars, it means 180 or so other lawmakers are jealous. Garagiola, in the view of one Annapolis sage, has “a colleague problem.”

But as long as he has the support of Senate President Mike Miller (D), who installed Garagiola as Senate Majority Leader shortly before the session, it may not matter. And even a colleague problem, incredible as it may sound, has political potential.

Garagiola’s newfound power gives greater visibility to his legislation and causes. Now when he speaks in favor of same-sex marriage, or of infusing the state Transportation Trust Fund with new revenues, he does so with added authority – and people are more apt to listen.

“There’s a political capital one can use,” he observes. But he concedes that not everyone would agree – “there’s different views on this.”

Whatever their views on Garagiola and his legislative causes, few people doubt the 38-year-old lawmaker’s political acumen – and ambition.

It seemed like he was on a fool’s errand when he decided to challenge Sen. Jean Roesser (R) in 2002. Though grandmotherly, she had a formidable political record – ousting Larry Levitan (D), who was then the chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, in 1994, and then edging popular Montgomery County Councilwoman Gail Ewing (D) four years later. And she had intensely loyal supporters in certain corners of her competitive upcounty district. But Garagiola outworked the incumbent like crazy, and even in a Republican year won by 755 votes.

Less than three years later, when U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) flirted with a Senate bid, Garagiola surprised many political insiders by saying that yes, he would most definitely entertain the idea of running for Congress if there was a vacancy. It turned out there wasn’t, but people got the idea – Garagiola had no intention of waiting his turn. A lot of big names, some with easy access to big money, were lining up for that seat, but Garagiola seemed undeterred.

Garagiola always took care of his legislative work, though – enabling him to counter any grumbling that he is an over-hungry show horse. From an indoor smoking ban to renewable energy standards to rolling back the so-called computer tax, he has amassed a record of achievement. An attorney by trade, he has meticulously built the case – and lined up impressive support – for gay marriage and more transportation spending.

The same-sex marriage bill is about to cross the finish line. While Annapolis now has a handful of openly gay legislators, it didn’t hurt for advocates to let a handsome heterosexual former paratrooper carry the legislation.

“There’s different rights that come with marriage that people of the opposite sex don’t even think about,” the father of three says.

With fuel prices shooting skyward, raising the gas tax and other revenues for transportation projects may be a trickier proposition in this legislative session. But Garagiola sees the urgency now.

“There’s a finite window on when we can hit on that issue,” he says.

The gas tax in Maryland hasn’t gone up since the early 1990’s, and the conventional wisdom is that legislators can only safely raise taxes in the first or second year of a four-year term. But Garagiola believes 2012 will be too late – in part because the Maryland Department of Transportation has decided to raise tolls around the state later this year.

“It’s a harder explanation,” he says – even though “we [in the legislature] didn’t play a role” in hiking the tolls.

Garagiola says he feels support building for the measure – but he’s also a realist. It has helped that he has been able to collect co-sponsors from many corners of the state, because otherwise “many people assume this is just a Montgomery issue.”

But even if Garagiola has proven adept at pulling together supporters for his top legislation, his colleagues recently questioned his ascension to the majority leader slot. Earlier in this legislative session, about half the Democratic senators wrote a letter questioning why Miller, rather than the full Democratic caucus, got to name the majority leader.

It’s another occasion for Garagiola to shrug – and insist he isn’t taking it personally.

“There’s probably a combination of reasons that people signed that letter,” he says. “I’m not losing sleep over it.”

But he also defends Miller: “The Senate president should be able to choose his or her team.”

The letter, though, may not just be about the present – it’s probably also about the future. For years, the conventional wisdom in Annapolis has been that Southern Maryland Sen. Mac Middleton (D) and Montgomery Sen. Brian Frosh (D) would vie for the Senate president position whenever Miller decided to move on. But Miller hasn’t gone anywhere, and Middleton and Frosh are both now well into their 60s. It’s entirely possible that Miller, in making Garagiola his majority leader, has decided to bypass the men of his generation and has essentially anointed his successor.

But that’s not Garagiola’s only path to political advancement. A Congressional bid or run for statewide office could be in the offing at some point – and there’s even some talk that when lawmakers draw the new Congressional district boundaries they may try to create a district that entices Garagiola to run – in part so they can get him out of Annapolis.

Garagiola professes not to be thinking at all about his political future.

“We could all plan for so many different things, a lot that’s out of our control even,” he says. “I’m very content with where I’m at right now. If this is where the political career ended, I have a sense of accomplishment already…but clearly there are other opportunities.”

But Garagiola knows there could also be pitfalls.

If you plan ahead, he says, “that’s when you have a misstep.”

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Blame the Teachers!

The Nine Lives of the ICC

The Incredible Shrinking City

Paying the Fare

Republican Rising Stars

Only 2,114 Days Till Election Day 2016

An Old Timer Holds Forth on Annapolis

Maryland’s Moment?

Happy New War

Nobody Asked Me, but…

To the Mooney…

Can Baker Cook Up Real Change?

Preppies at the Gate

Marylanders (Still) on the National Stage

We Don’t Know Jack: Fallout from Johnson Arrest Could be Far-reaching

After Ehrlich

Tomorrow Never Knows

To Be Frank (Part 2)

The More Things Change….

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Polls Apart

Van Hollen’s Burden

Not Rhee-a-listic

Tomorrow’s Headlines Today!

20th Century Comes to Baltimore County

Primary Colors

Murphy the Smurf

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly’s Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes … Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood

Taylor-Made

Black and Blue?

Slugfest

Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George’s County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne’s World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation