By ELISHA SAUERS
The Capital of Annapolis
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — At a late City Council meeting, an alderman asks the mayor a nuanced question about pensions, but the answer comes out muffled.
“I can’t hear what you’re saying,” the alderman says, fiddling with his earpiece.
It needs a new battery — again.
Minutes feel longer as staff scurry to find a replacement. The buzz of fluorescent lights crescendos to fill the silence. Council members wait with awkward expressions.
Then someone whisks a new battery to the alderman for his listening device. The mayor begins again.
“Can you hear me now?” he asks.
Alderman Richard Edson Israel doesn’t always hear what other members on the Annapolis council say. Sometimes his slurred speech obscures the punchlines of his wry jokes.
Stiffness in his limbs can make the difference between a good day and a bad. One day he’s taking his cane for a walk, and the next day it’s taking him.
His health is declining from 13 years of Parkinson’s disease. The Ward 1 Democrat has vowed this term, his second, will be his last. Though his term ends in a year, lately he’s wrestled with whether he can make it that long.
He’ll have outpatient surgery soon. It could improve his speech or worsen the side effects.
Dick Israel, 70 this month, won’t decide whether he’ll resign until after the procedure.
One thing is certain: Colleagues and constituents are rooting for Israel.
They stand behind a man who crafted thousands of letters of advice for Maryland lawmakers in 25 years with the Attorney General’s Office. A man whose mind has stayed sharp even as his body has faltered. They admire his focus on the task — not on himself.
At the meeting, his listening device working again, Israel quips to lighten the mood.
“Yes, I can hear you very well,” he tells the mayor. “Be careful what you say.”
The first symptom
Strolling a West Street sidewalk, Israel glimpsed his reflection in a restaurant window. Something was out of place. While one arm swung with every other step, the other didn’t budge.
Then, while kneeling at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in 1999, he felt a tremor in one leg.
Doctors would diagnose him with Parkinson’s, a degenerative disease afflicting 60,000 Americans annually.
When strangers meet Israel, his speech problems, childlike scrawl and shuffling gait prompt uncomfortable questions.
What’s wrong with him? Does he have a mental disability?
“Physically, I’m falling apart,” he says, “but mentally I think I’m still sharp.”
Israel lives in a brown-brick rowhouse in Murray Hill, decorated as one might imagine for a lifelong bachelor: haphazardly. Books are the predominant motif — his dining room table is a repository for quick reference.
A wheelchair is near the sofa so he can glide backward down the hall to the kitchen. A timer reminds him to take his medications. It’s a hassle, but Israel isn’t inclined to ask for a glass of water.
“Each time you accept that help, you’re conceding that you can’t do it,” said McShane Glover, a close friend.
So Israel focuses on others. Sometimes he’s listening to complaints about noisy bar crowds downtown. Other times it’s a plea for a gas leak inspection in public housing.
Only during private moments does he seek a reality check from friends. Have you noticed any “mental slipping,” he asks.
So far, so good, they tell him.
A flypaper mind
Israel seems to come from a bygone era. One in which seersucker suits or tweed and fedoras were fashionable, and formal etiquette was still practiced.
While his council colleagues take notes on iPads, Israel enjoys writing letters with a fountain pen and says “automobile” instead of “car,” “tavern” instead of “bar.” Everyone gets a courtesy title: Ms. Hardwick, Mr. Miller.
This from a man born in Kansas, not Kensington, England.
“He’s the kind of old-school gentleman that you would think almost doesn’t exist anymore,” said Gilbert Renaut, a downtown resident.
That British humor works its way into council deliberations.
Take the backyard chickens bill this year. City staff recommended outlawing roosters. “I would also point out,” Israel said, “that in 1973, this state adopted in its constitution a prohibition against discriminating on the basis of sex.”
“He’s not the guy you’ll find down at the sports bar slurping down beers,” said Craig Nielsen, a former colleague in the Attorney General’s Office.
He’s the guy you’ll find scouring legal texts.
Israel’s mind is a Rolodex of names, dates, phone numbers and bylaws. He hunts down errors in the City Code. When a legal question arises, the eyes on the council turn to Israel. “I’m an attorney, but I’m not the city attorney,” he usually demurs.
The Friday before a Monday City Council meeting, Hilary Raftovich, a city employee, drops off 100 pages or more of bills, notes and committee findings at Israel’s house.
He’s the only alderman who still gets a copy because his stiff hands make it hard to use the iPad he was issued. Israel’s ritual is to hunker down at home over the weekend to read through the stack of paper.
In his two terms, Israel has sponsored bills giving citizens more oversight of the government.
But perhaps his most important bill was one that didn’t pass. The legislation would overhaul Annapolis’ political structure. It would have pushed the next mayor off the council but given him veto power. Israel believes a mayor can’t write the budget, then scrutinize his own work.
He stands on principles, big and small.
Last July the Housing Authority had put forward bills to rename rooms in honor of residents. As the city attorney read each aloud, Israel interjected.
“We’ve been independent of Great Britain for 235 years, and it’s time to stop using British spelling in resolutions of the City Council of Annapolis. `Harbor’ is spelled in American English H-A-R-B-O-R, not spelled with a U,” he said.
Mayor Josh Cohen quietly pointed out that “Harbour House” is the community’s legal name.
“Well,” Israel said, “I would suggest that the Housing Authority think about respelling the name of Harbour House.”
Seven hours later
“Should we start the meeting?”
In April 2011, the Finance Committee members looked around and shrugged. They were reviewing the budget, but their chairman, Israel, was nowhere to be found.
Israel had fallen on the bathroom floor at home. Too weak to get up, he lay there for seven hours.
Later, at the hospital, Israel chatted up the Annapolis firefighters about their benefits and what they think about the budget. Doing research.
“I was thinking about cutting the fire department’s budget,” he told The Capital then. “I am having second thoughts about that now, since they came and got me off the bathroom floor.”
Friends say that ever since, he’s worn his medical alert necklace.
Others cringe at the thought of seven hours on the floor. Israel makes light of it, just as he does of his 2009 brain surgery. Doctors implanted electrodes on his brain, controlled by a battery pack in his chest. His surgery Dec. 11 will replace that battery.
After the brain surgery, all people recalled was how disappointed he was to miss a council meeting. That he never comes unglued — even in front of his friends — astonishes them. “I would have been a sobbing mess,” Glover said.
After the fall, Israel took time off for physical therapy. At his insistence, staff arranged to hold a finance meeting in the nursing home’s party room. They set up conference tables like a makeshift dais and brought in a video camera so residents could watch on TV.
If Israel couldn’t get to City Hall, he’d bring City Hall to rehab.
Drive to debate
Israel wasn’t the only Democrat vying for the Ward 1 seat in 2005. Alice O. Johnson, president of a public housing community, ran against him. They came off as polar opposites.
But behind the scenes, a friendship was developing. Johnson didn’t have a car, so Israel offered her a ride to their debate at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Before shutting the car door, Johnson told her opponent he had her vote. She kept that promise.
“That is a very compassionate man — not just about policy but people,” Johnson said. “I really love Mr. Israel.”
Campaign volunteers said that as a candidate, Israel was mild-mannered, save for one incident in the final days of the race.
Someone had posted a large sign with a photo of Israel’s Republican opponent, Doug Burkhardt, and Renaut, an independent mayoral candidate. It suggested Renaut had endorsed Burkhardt. Renaut, Israel’s friend, hadn’t approved the sign.
“He said, `I’m going to Stevens Hardware to get a saw ’cause we’re taking this sign down,” remembered Minor Carter, his former campaign treasurer. “Thank goodness they weren’t open.”
No one, especially Israel, thought he would become a politician after retirement. But Israel had an early inspiration. His uncle, a Democrat named William Kidwell, was an Illinois state representative.
At 10, Israel visited the House floor. When a vote came up to outlaw firecrackers, Kidwell consulted his nephew on how “we” should vote. “It was a Bolshevik plot,” Israel remembers with a smirk. And when the boy mashed the “nay” button, a light sprang up on a large roster — a red blip against a sea of green.
Back to work
The chambers filled on the summer night the council planned to vote on the budget.
A thud swallowed the sound in the room. People ran to the dais. This time, Israel had slipped out of his seat.
Later Alderwoman Sheila Finlayson, D-Ward 4, leaned over to Cohen. “We need to make sure we get him a chair without casters,” she said.
The eight aldermen and the mayor can get tough with one another on issues — such as where their offices should go or, more importantly, how money should be spent. On the subject of their colleague, they pull together.
Some have taken turns giving him rides to meetings and carrying his files. Alderman Fred Paone, the Ward 2 Republican who sits beside Israel on the dais, adjusts his mic. These little kindnesses often go unnoticed.
Alderman Ross Arnett, who represents Ward 8, thinks of Israel as a mentor. When Arnett began his term in 2009, he wanted the experienced fellow Democrat to take him under his wing. “I really did think he was dead on target on everything,” Arnett said.
But on the occasions he disagrees with Israel, he’s also following the alderman’s advice. Israel once told Arnett that if two people in the room share the same opinion, one of those people is unnecessary.
A joke with a ring of truth.
Despite his failing health, Israel keeps pushing his body to keep up. One morning a week, you can find him sitting at the “tavern” in Loews Annapolis Hotel, ready to listen to complaints or suggestions. He might give you a few of his own.
Or he might tell you about the time Gov. Thomas Pratt upheld the honor of Maryland and saved its credit back in, oh, 1845. Whatever the arcane history lesson, it’ll be chock full of dates and names you probably won’t remember.
In the twilight of his political life, Israel knows his greatest opponent is himself. But before retiring to a life of writing historical stories, he’ll be on the dais. On his to-do list is converting the Donner Parking Lot on the waterfront into a community park.
When the clerk called the roll last week, Israel was the first one to respond: “Present.”
Present. So far, so good.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)