By Pete Munsey.
Through all the political changes in Baltimore County over the past 12 or 13 years, one thing, or more specifically one person, seemed a constant. No matter the ups and downs of this or that career, the redistricting tectonics from Annapolis which shifted whole neighborhoods into different districts overnight, or the national mood waxing locally, Steve Lafferty was the delegate from Towson.
A self-effacing public servant in an era when that phrase sounds quaint, Lafferty recently agreed to sit down and talk about his life in the General Assembly, his plans for the future as part of the County Executive’s office, and his views on public service. The words “public servant” and “public service” seem appropriate not only in describing the role of the citizen/legislator in Maryland, but an apt description of Lafferty himself.
At a downtown Towson coffee shop, as he was greeted by numerous people making the mid walk stop from car to office, he settled at a table and described the roots of his involvement. “My father worked for the federal government, and my mother worked at the state and local government level,” he said. Especially through his mother, Lafferty learned the importance of community involvement. As a young man, he also became interested in the politics. “I was exposed to and engaged in watching the 1968 Democratic Convention,” he remembers. As a college student at the University of Maryland, Lafferty became involved in student government. In later years, after settling in the Idlewylde and Stoneleigh communities with his wife, Betsy, he joined their neighborhood associations, sat on the county planning board, directed the Smart Growth initiative on the state and local level, and served in several capacities in Howard County government as well. He sums up his attitude this way: “I learned how important it was to be involved on the grassroots level.”
It is no surprise then that some of the issues most dear to him are matters pertaining to the environment. Over the years, he’s worked closely with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and others on land use and bay management. “We took on measures to protect the Bay, clean water, septic systems,” Lafferty said. Amongst the measures he’s supported and shepherded through Annapolis were bills regulating the function and uses of septic systems to stem pollution, protecting drinking water and the schools, and awarding $8 million to local jurisdictions in the aftermath of massive and catastrophic flooding. In May, Preservation Maryland honored him as a legislative champion for his work. “The biggest honor is it recognized a suite of bills,” Lafferty said, including measures to preserve land use, green space and oyster populations.
“The standards are in place,” he said, of laws on the books governing growth and environmental protection going back to his days working with former Governor Parris Glendening, “but there is little interest in implementing the law” from the current administration.
Lafferty remembers too the many battles fought and lost. He worked for five years in the House to pass the HOME Act, which would outlaw discrimination against renters based on their source of income. This bill unfortunately did not pass the Senate. He fought for years to devise ways for bicyclists to more safely traverse the back roads and streets of the state and Baltimore County. These initiatives too died in the Senate. “As a legislator, one often works hard to get a bill in shape for passage and it just can’t get across the finish line,” he said, “Good policy often does not come easily but doing justice requires persistence and commitment.”
In his new capacity in the Olszewski Administration, as chief sustainability officer, Lafferty says his first order of business is meeting with departments and taking in information on a variety of topics, from development to green ways to quality of life issues that affect well being in different ways. “I’m going to have to listen a lot,” he said, to both county employees who oversee these issues and citizens who have vested interests in them. “There’s a pretty robust community engagement process. It will take time,” he added.
In the meantime, Lafferty hopes the new delegate from District 42A, who will be recommended to the governor by the county Democratic central committee, is committed to honest and open discussion. “There will be a lot of challenges for a new legislator so it’s important to listen, to find good mentors, and to focus on a few key issues. I also think it’ll be important for my successor to get out and meet leaders of community associations and the schools, the Towson Chamber of Commerce, the colleges and the hospitals.”
“For anyone running for office, all politics are local so work to understand and be in touch with local leaders, residents, business owners and issues, “ he continued, “there is no better way for someone to gain respect than to talk to voters and respond to their concerns and interests.”
Pete Munsey is an area business owner, political activist, and former newspaper editor and reporter. He resides in Cromwell Valley with his wife and two dogs.