MD Session sees state sportsman's caucus double in size

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Bagging Victories for Sportsmen.

Growing Md. Legislative Caucus Sways Bills, Woos Conservationists.

By Matthew Mosk, Washington Post Staff Writer

March 5, 2002

By the time an orange dawn had broken over the open prairie on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Sen. John C. Astle had already spent an hour in the frosty grass with his buddy Ladd Johnson, scanning the wispy clouds for any hint of a Canada goose.

With the morning chill sinking in, Astle and Johnson crouched into a cramped wooden blind, camouflaged by a field of soft yellow grain, and got to jawing about politics.

On a morning just like this one, the two had first turned their frustrations about state restrictions on hunters into thoughts of a Maryland Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus. Now, between sightings of distant flocks, the two hunters marveled at how their fledgling caucus had grown.

"Last year, the group was just getting off the ground," said Astle (D-Anne Arundel), the caucus's chairman. "This year, we're really getting involved."

Since the start of this year's General Assembly session, the sportsmen's caucus has expanded to include 74 of the legislature's 188 members. In the session's first two months, its members have waded into debates over shooting deer and bears and over a centuries-old ban on Sunday hunting -- with some success. In coming weeks, they plan to challenge animal rights groups over a bill that would outlaw steel-jawed leg-hold traps.

At the same time, the 12-year-old Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation in Washington has been at work, trying to broaden the reach of hunting interests into several other state capitals. Beyond Maryland, it has aided outdoor enthusiasts in forming caucuses in Georgia and Colorado. This week, organizers will meet with hunters in the Virginia legislature to discuss a Richmond branch.

The migration from Capitol Hill to the states is not accidental. To a growing degree, laws that regulate hunters and wildlife are being made on the state level. For several years, leaders of the sportsmen's group say, animal rights activists have had the luxury of influencing state lawmakers with little organized opposition.

"Relative to the animal rights activists, we've been totally disorganized," said James Farmer, a Charles County lawyer who chairs the Maryland Legislative Sportsmen's Foundation, a nonprofit group that works with the caucus. "That's been the problem. Sportsmen have had no organization to let the public and the policymakers know about all the good that they do."

To catch up, Farmer's foundation has started an aggressive fundraising effort, which included a Feb. 21 dinner that paired donors -- many of whom were Annapolis lobbyists -- and lawmakers at the same table.

The effort skirted state ethics laws that prevent lawmakers from raising money during the legislature's 90-day session because the group is classified as a charity, not a political action group. Organizers received a written opinion from the legislature's ethics counsel approving the dinner.

Establishing a sportsmen's caucus in Maryland was not an easy sell. The General Assembly has passed some of the most restrictive gun legislation in the nation. Support for the group, caucus leaders say, has hinged on the caucus's pledge to bridge hunting interest with those of other outdoor-minded groups, such as bird-watchers, horseback riders and white-water rafters.

"We wanted this to be sportsmen-related, not gun-related," Del. Kenneth D. Schisler (R-Talbot) said. "We've made a real effort to be broad-minded."

Unlike the congressional branch, whose leaders embrace a bond with the National Rifle Association and say they don't typically work with environmental groups, the Maryland group has tried to shift to the left, offering support, for instance, to the land preservation projects of Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and to environmentalists' efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

And their stance on gun issues is softer than their congressional counterparts', Farmer said. "Most of the citizens of Maryland agree, as I do, that there must be reasonable regulation of firearms," he said. "We strongly believe in the right to bear arms, but no freedom is absolute."

This grasp for balance has appealed to House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany), who has tried to walk a similar line between liberal colleagues in House leadership and conservative constituents back home.

"A lot of sportsmen's issues have a common thread with conservationists," Taylor said. "That voice has been missing in Annapolis, and it should not be."

Lobbyists for animal rights groups, though, are skeptical that the caucus has strayed far from its core interests in hunting and guns, and they doubt the caucus will gain enough traction to exert meaningful influence.

"I just see this as an additional means of doing their political organizing," said Wayne Pacelle, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States, a group that is actively lobbying in Maryland.

"The battle lines have been drawn on these issues for a long time now, and even if a lot of members join the caucus, presumably so they can put it in letters to their constituents, I think they will still vote their conscience on the important issues," he said.

Animal rights supporters have maintained their core support from suburban lawmakers during recent votes in the House of Delegates. But that was not enough to defeat a bill, approved 102 to 32, that for the first time since 1953 would allow hunters with a permit to kill black bears that have threatened someone's life or property.

Nor were the animal rights interests able to stop the House from overturning a long-held ban on Sunday hunting and permitting a one-day Sunday hunt at the start of the deer-hunting season in the fall.

Both measures still need the support of the Senate and Glendening to become law. Glendening has not indicated if he will sign or veto the bills, his spokesman said.

Sherry Crumley, a Buchanan, Va., woman whose company makes camouflage clothing for hunters, said she hopes to see a sportsmen's caucus exerting influence in a similar manner in Richmond, even though hunters have had little trouble finding support there.

"You never know who is lurking out there who would like to curtail a tradition that is a way of life for many of us," Crumley said.
 


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