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Watchdog Keeps Eye on Annapolis

AARP will be fighting for 50+ Marylanders in Annapolis in 2018

Nearly every morning of the Maryland General Assembly’s 90-day session, Karen Kalla whips up a coffee smoothie and logs on to her laptop to see what lawmakers are up to.

Kalla, who lives in Rockville and had a career in environmental and educational advocacy, scours the legislature’s website for new bills on issues that would affect residents age 50-plus — from housing affordability to prescription drug costs to safer streets.

On the busiest days, Kalla, 73, pores over up to 150 pages of legislative text and updates the progress of 160 or so bills cataloged in her Excel spreadsheet.

She’s been doing so for every legislative session since 2019, devoting up to 40 hours per week — all unpaid — as AARP Maryland’s volunteer legislative aide. In addition to supporting senior director of advocacy Tammy Bresnahan, Kalla organizes advocacy volunteers to speak out when and where they’re needed.

“Karen is the glue that keeps us all together,” Bresnahan says.

The “us all” is a group of about 65 AARP Maryland volunteers who from mid-January to mid-April walk the marble halls and frequent the carpeted committee rooms of the Annapolis statehouse complex, dressed in their AARP red. In state capitols across the country, AARP members advocate for bills that are aimed at helping older Americans age in place and live their lives as fully as possible.

Kalla is soft-spoken and deflects attention to her fellow volunteers. “I have learned a lot — really learned a lot,” she says. “It’s been a fabulous experience for me to work with so many great people who are retired and who want to bring their expertise to this effort.”

AARP is nonpartisan and doesn’t support specific candidates, but it does want its voice heard in Annapolis as lawmakers debate legislation that could help—or hurt—older Marylanders.

Energy on the docket

That’s what was happening one afternoon in February, when Kalla and a half-dozen AARP volunteers sat behind Bresnahan and others as they asked the House Economic Matters Committee for stricter state regulations on retail energy suppliers. Lax oversight, they said, had led to lower-income and older customers being targeted in bait-and-switch pricing scams.

“There’s people like that who will just come and be here, to show we’re watching — we care,” Kalla says.

Last year, Bresnahan says, AARP Maryland clinched 32 “wins” — bills it supported that became law. AARP Maryland State Director Hank Greenberg calls advocacy volunteers “the secret sauce behind our ability to be as effective as we are in Annapolis.”

Del. Andrea Harrison (D), who represents Prince George’s County, says she relates to volunteers’ work on issues that affect many families, such as the need for caregivers to have more financial support. Harrison says she helped care for her mother, who died of multiple myeloma.

The challenge is finding money in tight budgets. AARP Maryland comes “out in force” on bills it endorses, Harrison says — but its advocates are respectful.

“It’s much easier to come to consensus with people … who take that posture,” Harrison says.

Kalla spent her 27-year career organizing others around environmental and educational issues, including for the Sierra Club and the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

“I’ve always been supportive of empowering people,” she says — whether through education, voting rights or advocacy.

She had been retired for about six months when she realized she wanted to do more. She had always planned to spend some of her retirement lobbying Maryland lawmakers on causes she cared about. So when AARP Maryland’s volunteer legislative aide position came open, she jumped at the chance.

Outside of AARP, Kalla enjoys gardening, hiking, bicycling, kayaking, cooking and spending time with friends and family. In fact, she plans to step down from her AARP role at the end of the year to spend more time with her five grandchildren. She says she’ll miss the camaraderie of her fellow advocates.

“It’s a real wonderful space,” she says, “for people who care about all these issues to come together.”

Katherine Shaver has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years, including 26 years at The Washington Post. This is her first Bulletin story.

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