- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2001

ANNAPOLIS Maryland legislators will decide whether to adopt four new state symbols this year and jettison another the state song, "Maryland, My Maryland."

The calico cat moved closer to becoming Maryland's official cat and the nation's third state feline Friday on a 116-12 House vote, borne largely on the efforts of fifth-grade girls from rural Western Maryland.

Across the nation students are visiting statehouses on similar missions and frequently succeeding, said Don Hunter manager of information and members at the Lexington, Ky.-based Council of State Governments.

"State symbols are becoming grade school class projects," Mr. Hunter said, with pupils lobbying legislators for state lizards, minerals, even state soils.

Maryland recognizes 19 state symbols including an official crustacean (the blue crab) and drink (milk).

Following the lead of neighbor Virginia, which reduced its state symbols to 22 after it dumped "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" as its official song, Maryland may ditch "Maryland, My Maryland," which contains dated, pro-Confederate lyrics.

Regardless, both have a long way to go to top Texas and Florida, which have 35 state symbols each.

Texas set a one-year record, probably in 1997, when it designated 10 new state symbols ranging from Chiltepin peppers to crape myrtles.

"Sometimes these proposals go through harmlessly enough and sometimes they create controversy," Mr. Hunter said.

The cat proposal overcame suggestions of sexism: Just one in 3,000 of the cream, red, yellow and black splotched felines is male.

But the kitty can expect Gov. Parris N. Glendening's support if the Senate approves, his spokesman Mike Morrill said.

Four other Maryland proposals haven't made it to the House or Senate floor.

Bills that would make Patuxent River agate the state gem, the Pinxterbloom azalea the state shrub and the raven the state's second bird (enabling the Super Bowl champions' mascot to join the Baltimore Oriole) have committee hearings during the coming three weeks.

Yet some say proposals, like that for a state cat, are just warm fuzzies.

Frivolous, said Delegate Tod David Sher, Montgomery County Democrat.

Silly, opined Delegate Donald E. Murphy, a Republican who represents Howard and Baltimore counties.

"But more importantly if you want to teach kids a civics lesson, kill the bill and make them come back next year," Mr. Murphy said.

"You're going to give them the mistaken impression that all you have to do to pass a bill is send five kids to Annapolis," said Mr. Murphy.

After all, he noted, hundreds of students lobbied before Astrodon johnstoni became the state dinosaur in 1998.

Delegate James E. Rzepkowski said official symbols should have some historical significance to the state as do the Chesapeake retriever (state dog) and White Oak (state tree) but not the calico cat.

The Anne Arundel County Republican said it's not enough that the cat's coat mirrors the colors of the state flag. After all, the House rejected similar arguments in 1997 to designate yellow topaz the state gem.

But Delegate James W. Hubbard, Prince George's County Democrat, sees the calico cat vote as a good sign.

After all, the Patuxent River agate is a small red and yellow stone with black flecks, indigenous to a wide swath of Maryland and a sort of populist pebble since it lies close to the surface where folks could gather it on their own.

The agate may even have come from the gizzards of dinosaurs, posits the geologist who suggested the bill.

However, the Pinxterbloom azalea, Maryland's would-be state shrub, is a relative, if abundant, newcomer that's native to New England. Also known as the honeysuckle azalea, its green leaves turn yellow in fall but its flowers can be white, pink or purple.

Students who'd noticed the fragrant blooms in their neighborhoods and others' asked Sen. Ida G. Ruben, Montgomery County Democrat, to suggest it be named the state shrub.

As for prospects of a second state bird, it's worth noting that there are more Ravens on the Baltimore football team than ravens nesting in Maryland.

Yet for Delegate Nathaniel Oaks, the Baltimore Democrat sponsoring the bill, there's more in play than numbers.

"It just happens that the raven is a black bird," Mr. Oaks said, explaining that, to the elementary school children in his district who suggested it, "this is a recognition of black strength."

Politics are local, legislators note.

Delegate Kevin Kelly, Allegany County Democrat, is reminded each time he drives by a billboard in his district urging passersby to log-on to the World Wide Web and cast an electronic vote for his calico cat bill.

• Laurent Thomet of Capital News Service contributed to this article.

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