ANNAPOLIS – When Allen Freidman, a small tavern owner in Laurel, feared Maryland’s proposed smoking ban might burn his business, he didn’t get mad. He got on a chartered bus to a Statehouse rally along with 72 patrons and friends.
“If you have just one voice, it’s hard to be heard,” Freidman said. “But if you have many voices together, it’s hard to be ignored.”
That is the same philosophy of other grass-roots groups that Gov. Parris N. Glendening and others say are playing an increasingly important role in Maryland’s legislative process.
“One of the things I think is missed in our discussions of political decisions is the impact of grass-roots movements,” said Glendening, a former government professor at the University of Maryland.
Grass-roots efforts range from small single-issue groups, such as a group fighting to preserve the name of a Wicomico County road, to larger organizations that channel their efforts on major policy areas such as welfare. Members typically bombard legislators and the governor’s office with mail, phone calls, visits and newsletters.
“In this session, we’ve seen this happen on several issues,” the governor said.
Glendening said the loosely organized, but vocal public protest aimed at an unpopular vehicle emissions testing program was instrumental to the eventual compromise delaying implementation. The program was approved by the Legislature in 1991 to meet federal Clean Air standards.
“When people saw what would happen to their cars, they just protested,” he said. “It had a very big impact. There is no question in my mind that public outcry on a grass-roots level was very successful.”
The emissions test proposal sparked a barrage of grass-roots correspondence and rallies — even a petition with 110,000 signatures.
The movement was triggered by a constituent of Del. Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford, who suggested the petition drive.
Jacobs’ name and number were announced during a talk-radio program for people wishing to request a petition. Petitions were mailed to individuals and collected by the office of Del. Martha Klima, R-Baltimore County.
“This issue was so very interesting because people were so up in arms about government intrusion,” Jacobs said. “It wasn’t driven by us, it was driven by people who were merely responding.
“We were in the right place at the right time.”
Klima, who sponsored the legislation to repeal the stronger emissions testing, called the spontaneous reaction “a proud example of democracy.”
“This was not an organized kind of thing,” Klima said. “It was a groundswell — people just wanted to do something.”
Klima said she believes people are generally becoming more activist.
“People absolutely are taking more of an interest,” she said. “This November’s election was a national concentrated effort to throw rascals out. That empowered people.”
Robert Fisher, a professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work, said grass-roots movements have proliferated since the 1960s, when the nation emerged from an industrial to a post-industrial society.
“In an industrial society, issues dealing with the work place took center stage,” he said. “Now, issues have become less work-oriented, but social, and the locus for organizing is in the communities.”
Fisher said the sentiment that people are apathetic about the government is not necessarily accurate.
“Political activism traditionally is tied with voting,” but voting is not necessarily the best indicator of participation, he said. “Increasingly there is a great alienation that people feel from the electoral process. They don’t vote, and it makes people appear increasingly apathetic, when it couldn’t be further from the truth.”
William Fromm of Carroll County is the founder and director of a small, single-issue grass-roots group, Second Husbands Alliance For Fair Treatment. The group’s aim is making sure that men who become second husbands support their first families.
Fromm often faxes position papers to the judiciary committees on various child support bills.
“We just wanted to give a voice to the masculine side of the child support dilemma,” Fromm said. “We want to see men be responsible. It is hard enough for a single parent to keep a family together without losing child support.”
Better organized grass-roots groups also have emerged. Generally these groups are volunteer organizations that finance their activities with annual membership dues.
One such organization is the Maryland Coalition of Women for Responsive Government, which founder Helen Dale said she began last fall out of a sense of “foreboding” over the Republican Contract With America.
“We felt the contract would have a devastating effect on women and their families and wanted to find a way to support candidates who would empower women,” Dale said.
The 156-member organization, funded by $25 membership fees, has held receptions for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and legislators. The group also has sent mass postcards to various lawmakers in support or opposition to policy issues.
Although Dale’s group is new, it has made an impact with some lawmakers — three of whom are members: Del. Joanne Benson, D-Prince George’s, Sen. Gloria Lawlah, D-Prince George’s, and Del. Salima Marriott, D-Baltimore.
“For once, women are going to be strong participants,” Dale said. “We are the majority of the electorate, and we want women in Maryland to be heard.
“That’s why we are doing this — to take back our voices.”