- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2007

In the past week, we’ve learned that at least when it comes to protecting children from sexual predators, there are limits to the power of one-party liberalism in Maryland. The General Assembly has acted with stunning speed in approving legislation to abolish parole for violent sex offenders, and Gov. Martin O’Malley is expected to sign the legislation implementing “Jessica’s Law,” named after Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old Florida girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a convicted sex offender.

Last Friday, it appeared that the bill would pass the Maryland Senate on Monday, but that it faced an uncertain future in the House of Delegates, where Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario was determined to prevent its passage. Gov. Martin O’Malley had not taken a position on the bill, but it seemed plausible that the governor’s position wasn’t terribly different from that of his running mate in last year’s election, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who as a member of the House of Delegates joined Mr. Vallario in opposing enactment of “Jessica’s Law.”

Over the next few days, Maryland’s political universe — at least on this one issue — turned upside down. On Saturday, Mr. Vallario endorsed Jessica’s law, and his committee unanimously approved it. The House and Senate gave gave preliminary approval to the bill. On Monday, the legislation overwhelmingly passed both chambers, with the House voting unanimously in favor and the Senate voting 43-3 to send the bill to the governor’s desk. (For the record, one of the three voting no was Sen. Brian Frosh of Montgomery County.) Aides to the governor say he will sign the bill into law.

During last year’s session of the General Assembly, it initially appeared that Mr. Vallario had been successful in killing Jessica’s Law, which included sentences of up to 25 years for violent sex offenders —who include persons who employ a dangerous weapon, or suffocate, strangle, disfigure or inflict serious physical injury in the course of committing such a crime. But after Bill O’Reilly of Fox News Channel attacked Mr. Vallario for blocking the bill, members of the General Assembly were inundated with telephone calls, e-mails and faxes demanding action. At a special session of the General Assembly in June, lawmakers agreed to a compromise that mandated a 25-year sentence for these crimes. But at Mr. Vallario’s insistence, these perpetrators remained eligible for parole after serving just 50 percent of their sentences.

That’s what Jerry Norton and Joan Harris, president and vice president respectively of a grass-roots organization called Citizens for Jessica’s Law in Maryland, were determined to change this year, even though the political climate in Annapolis seemed stacked against advocates of tough-on-crime legislation — particularly with a more liberal legislature and a right-of-center Republican governor replaced by a liberal Democrat. But Mr. Norton and Mrs. Harris refused to accept political “reality” and take no for an answer. They worked to focus national and local media attention on the story. Once again Mr. O’Reilly turned his radio and television fire on Mr. Vallario for blocking “Jessica’s Law,” generating yet another barrage of angry telephone calls, e-mail etc. at Mr. Vallario demanding that he let the bill come to the floor for a vote. Local talk radio, particularly WCBM and WBAL in Baltimore, also played an important role.

By last Saturday, Mr. Vallario (and, we suspect, most of the liberal Democratic establishment in Annapolis, including a lot of politicians who were cheering him on behind the scenes) had had enough and concluded there was no point to continuing the modern-day version of George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door when it came to cracking down on sexual predators. As the bill made its way toward House passage on Monday night, Mr. Vallario sounded almost as if the legislation was his idea to begin with. “We need to send a message to these terrible criminals,” he said. “Maryland is in the forefront of addressing this most serious issue.”

Marylanders owe a particular debt of gratitude to Del. Christopher Shank and Sen. Nancy Jacobs, both Republicans, for their extraordinary leadership in getting Jessica’s Law enacted in the state. Now, hot-button issues such as in-state tuition for illegal aliens, driver license’s for illegals and expanded voting rights for felons are coming before the General Assembly. Mr. Norton and his colleagues have some valuable lessons to teach those of us on the political center-right about going over the heads of elected officials, taking our case directly to the public and illustrating how flawed these ideas are.

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