ANNAPOLIS – To a casual observer, Maryland’s 2009 legislative session may appear to have been a success for Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s.
The General Assembly approved several of the senator’s legislative initiatives, including a bill promoting textbook affordability and another pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But as confetti fell onto the floor of the Senate chamber, Pinsky wasn’t satisfied.
“It wasn’t a groundbreaking session,” Pinsky said. “We’ve made some modest strides.”
One of the more progressive legislators in the General Assembly, Pinsky once again saw a number of his bills fail to reach the governor’s desk. Some proposals, such as universal health care and denying executives “excessive” bonuses, never made it out of their assigned committees.
They often don’t.
Pinsky said his legislative philosophy involves striking a balance between idealism and pragmatism.
As a college student, he protested against the Vietnam War. Later, he developed his pragmatic streak sitting at negotiation tables for teachers unions.
While he introduces compromise bills that draw other legislators to his causes, like this year’s greenhouse gas reduction bill and public campaign finance reform, Pinsky also introduces bills to “push the envelope” and force discussion on more contentious issues.
For example, every year the senator introduces the Maryland Health System Act, which would establish a state agency to provide health care to all Maryland residents.
“I understand single payer [health care] won’t move,” he said. “It’s a placeholder in order to hold a dialogue, and keep the flame alive.”
Pinsky also pointed out that even if something seems like a pipe dream in a given year, persistence over the years yields dividends.
“You start to realize it’s a marathon and not a sprint,” Pinsky said. “It took us three years to get the Healthy Air Act passed and it’s taken us three years to get the greenhouse gas bill through.”
The Healthy Air Act of 2006 regulates power plants’ emissions of pollutants like nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. This year’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act sets the state on a path to reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent from 2006 levels by 2020.
Once Pinsky is able to “educate” other legislators about an issue, there are some who will follow suit and force an actual debate. It’s at that point that Pinsky’s pragmatic side comes into play.
“You can’t exist up here if you don’t compromise,” Pinsky said. “But you have to decide, at what point are you compromising your principles?”
This notion of activism and advocacy has stuck with him throughout his life, from speaking out against South African Apartheid, to working with the Maryland State Teachers Association, to his current role as a legislator, he said.
Born in Camden, N.J., Pinsky earned a bachelor’s in public affairs as well as a master’s in education at George Washington University. He was a high school history teacher in Prince George’s County for 20 years, and now works for an affiliate of the Maryland State Teachers Association.
Pinsky first ran for the House of Delegates in 1986 because he wanted to “bridge the gap” between ground-level activists and the decision makers in Annapolis.
“I wanted to give voice to advocacy groups in my community,” Pinsky said.
After two terms in the House, Pinsky decided he could do more as a senator than as a delegate, so he moved across the lobby of the state house in 1994.
“In the House, a lot of the more progressive, liberal voices get marginalized,” Pinsky said.
In Annapolis, politicians and activists seem to have one word to describe the Prince George’s County senator: “passionate.” This passion was palpable in the closing days of the session, as senators fought Pinsky’s textbook affordability bill by pushing it back to the end of the day’s agenda.
Pinsky left his desk and over the course of the morning, walked from desk to desk, lobbying senators to ensure his bill would go through that day. And as the day’s last order of business, amendments that would have weakened the bill failed and the bill moved toward final passage.
Brad Heavner, director of Environment Maryland, described Pinsky as “a good person to work with closely.” He and Pinsky were both involved in this year’s greenhouse gas reduction bill, as well as the Healthy Air Act of 2006.
“Some legislators will not include you when they’re making the final decisions, or they’ll go off in their own direction,” Heavner said. “He’s one who will always keep you as part of the team.”
Some legislators on the other side of the aisle appreciate his ability to forge compromises.
Sen. Andy Harris, R-Baltimore County, one of the more conservative legislators in Annapolis, worked with Pinsky on a bill that aims at protecting forests in the state. When the two men have seen eye to eye on an issue, they’ve been able to build legislation that is “bipartisan” and appeals to a “broad spectrum of senators,” Harris said.
“I think he understands the legislative process very well and understands that on some issues the best solution is compromise,” Harris said. “He understands what can and can’t be done.”
Ryan O’Donnell, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, collaborated with Pinsky on a bill that would establish public financing of election campaigns for General Assembly candidates. Although the bill failed on the Senate floor, O’Donnell said Pinsky is “someone you can count on.”
“There’s no other motives. He thinks this is the right thing to do and that’s a little rare in Annapolis,” O’Donnell said. “He’s really a crusader.”