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Del. Samuel “Sandy” Rosenberg

Jeffeson Jackson Steele

By Ralph Brave | Posted 4/20/2005

For the past three state legislative sessions, from 2002 to 2004, House Del. Samuel “Sandy” Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City) has introduced legislation prodding the state toward making some policy on embryonic stem-cell research—to set up a task force to study the issue, or to simply enunciate state support for the research. Three years running, the bills never made it out of their first committee. “California changed everything,” Rosenberg said as this year’s session began, referring to the passage last November of a $3 billion stem-cell research funding initiative in the Golden State. So this year, Rosenberg introduced legislation to fund embryonic stem-cell research in Maryland, with $25 million from tobacco settlement monies (“Maryland’s Stem-Cell Wars,” Sept. 1, 2004). He and Sen. Paula Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), who sponsored similar legislation in the state Senate, came within one or two votes of passage and sending the bill to Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s desk—although mysteries still abound as to the governor’s position on the bill. To elucidate that and how the issue played itself out this year, and prospects for the future of stem-cell policy in Maryland, Rosenberg sat down for a telephone chat the day after the end of the legislative session.

 

City Paper: What’s your summary of what happened to the stem-cell legislation this year?

Sandy Rosenberg: It passed the House, but the threat of a filibuster prevented it from even being debated on the Senate floor. So we’re already planning to pre-file the bill for next year’s session so that it can get an earlier hearing and a debate on the Senate floor, when it would not be causing potential harm to the debate on other bills that might not get considered because of time constraints at the end of the session.

 

CP: Why do you think you were successful in the House and yet came up short in the Senate?

SR: The speaker of the House [Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel County] was very supportive and very helpful to us in the House. He made it clear to the Democratic caucus that this was an issue he supported. I don’t believe he pressured anyone to support the bill, but he did lots of little things to help the bill along.

 

CP: Do you have any sense how close Sen. Hollinger came to rounding up enough votes to overcome a filibuster?

SR: She was either one or two votes away. Being one or two votes away meant that she had a majority in favor of the bill. But she has indicated, and I certainly believe she’s correct in her counting, that she had a majority of senators who would have supported the bill had it come to a vote.

CP: There’s been much discussion of the role of the governor. I’ve read or heard four or five different versions of what position he took in the final days. Do you have any clear sense of where the governor finally stood?

SR: Here’s what I do know: At the [House] bill hearing, there was a one-page position paper from the Department of Budget and Management opposing the bill because, in their view, the money could be better spent on Medicaid for two reasons: One, you have a federal match, so if the state spends $23 million on Medicaid, it gets an additional $23 million from the federal government for Medicaid, which would not be the case with stem-cell research. Two, you would be providing immediate short-term health care, as opposed to the long-term benefits we believe would accrue from embryonic stem-cell research.

Now this is not some rogue agency. This is the cabinet secretary who is the closest and most visible adviser to the governor of all his cabinet secretaries. This is not a situation where a department takes a position, and then hadn’t touched bases with everybody in the administration, and so then changes its position in light of getting word from the governor’s office. That’s not the case here.

Based on that fact alone, in my experience in Annapolis, the governor wanted the bill killed. If he didn’t want the bill killed, his Department of Budget and Management would not have taken a public written position in opposition to the bill.

The governor’s press flack said all through the session, “The governor has yet to take a position and is waiting to see what the bill looks like should it get to his desk.” Even if that were the case, that’s not the kind of leadership that the state needs on an issue of this importance. The governor needs to say whether he’s for or against the bill. And if he’s for it, he has a legitimate role in shaping the bill itself and where we’ll find the money to pay for it. *

 

CP: Sen. Hollinger and others believe that the governor would have signed the bill if it reached his desk. But I’ve only seen general statements that he’s supportive of stem-cell research.

SR: He said he’s supportive of stem-cell research on WBAL radio. Then in [The Sun], two days before the end of session, virtually the 11th hour, his press spokesperson, cleaning up after the parade, says the governor has not taken a specific position on the legislation before the General Assembly.

I think it would be wholly inconsistent, and I don’t think there’s a credible explanation, for the governor next year not to support this legislation, not to play a role between now and next January. I hope to sit down with the governor, and I have every reason to believe Sen. Hollinger would as well, to work out a bill and a funding mechanism for this, given the governor’s support for this kind of research.

 

CP: I saw that the Republican governor in Massachusetts has taken a stand favoring the kind of bill that you passed in the House here. Any sense that Maryland’s Republican governor can be moved on this issue?

SR: I hope so, because Gov. Ehrlich would have company among his Republican colleagues if he supported this research in deed as well as in word. Schwarzenegger in California, Romney in Massachusetts, Rell in Connecticut all support it. Those are all blue states. But in the red state of Missouri, as well, the governor there supports this research.

 

CP: How active and how effective were the patient advocate groups this time around?

SR: We had a far more extensive lobbying effort than we have had in the past. In the past, it’s been solely myself in sponsoring legislation—no cross-file in the Senate, as was the case this year with Sen. Hollinger—and just on my own I wasn’t able to generate the kind of grass-roots support that we saw this time. I think, most visibly, individuals who came forth to testify about the diseases that they were suffering from and the potential benefits that they could accrue from this research, such as John Kellerman, who suffers from early-onset Parkinson’s disease, were very effective.

 

CP: Once again the scientists Curt Civin and John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions were very prominent in arguing for this legislation, but once again, as in the previous three years, Johns Hopkins University as an institution did not take a position on the bill. Did they ever explain the reason for that to you?

SR: No. Hopkins did not work in opposition to the bill. But they did not support it. You saw [JHU President] Bill Brody’s op-ed in The Sun, where he wrote that this is an issue that should be resolved at the federal level, because you could have scientists moving from one state to another in the course of doing their research, and they could land in a state where it was illegal to carry the eggs being used for their research. I know from correspondence that I had that President Brody is hopeful that the Congress will change the federal policy. But with the Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and the White House, as I think we saw demonstrated last month with the [Terri] Schiavo case, we can’t rely on or expect a change in policy on an issue that is as important as this issue is to social and religious conservatives from the Republican party as it’s now constituted.

 

CP: What was most significantly different, from your perspective, this time around on the stem-cell issue than the previous three years?

SR: I was struck by the size of the vote in the House. We had 81 votes. And there were several people absent whom I think you could count on to be with us next year. For example, Del. Anthony Brown [D-Prince George’s County], who was in Iraq, could be expected to vote for the bill next year. We had a greater majority in the House than we expected.

To be honest with you, the day of the vote we had a whip count, and that put us in the neighborhood of 75 votes, with some undecided. But then the day of the vote, there were certain people who were absent, in addition to Brown in Iraq and certain others who at the moment have long-term illnesses and we weren’t expecting to be there. But there were some other people who weren’t there as well. And we wound up with 81.

I think several people changed their votes because of the speech which Del. [Sally] Jameson [D-Charles County] gave, where she talked about the fact that she has Type 1 diabetes, and how, because there’s a hereditary factor, every time she sees her granddaughter, she dreads that her granddaughter is going to tell her that she has the same disease.

 

* Henry Falwell, Gov. Ehrlich’s spokeman, told City Paper this week that while the governor has not taken a stand beyond his support for President Bush’s limited stem cell policy, he maintains an “open mind.” Falwell also said that the Budget Dept.’s opposition doesn’t represent the governor’s position, only that of his lead fiscal agency.

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