Pivotal Player in Annapolis

January 13, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR

ANNAPOLIS — Annapolis--ROBERT CLAYTON MITCHELL Jr. was the center of attention in Annapolis last week. Reporters scribbled down every word of his acceptance speech as House speaker. And for good reason. Clay Mitchell is the pivotal legislative player this year.

Here's why:

* The House speaker is the most powerful legislative leader opposing consideration of the Linowes tax commission report in the current 90-day session.

* Mr. Mitchell is the lone General Assembly leader still dead-set against raising motor vehicle taxes to replenish the state's transportation fund.

* The House speaker is rural Maryland's most powerful friend in its attempts to delay or weaken the Barnes commission's recommendations on concentrating future population growth near existing towns.

* Mr. Mitchell in previous years has clamped a lid on moves to approve campaign reform legislation, legislative ethics bills, a broader open-meetings law, a re-forestation bill opposed by developers and a bill banning assault rifles. These are key items for many legislators this year and Mr. Mitchell has started to change his position accordingly.

It is Mr. Mitchell's ability to control House actions that makes him so potent. He inherited from his predecessor, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a well-oiled legislative machine that uses an extended leadership system and a rigid committee voting structure to ensure obeisance. Challenge your committee chairman or the speaker and you wind up in a legislative gulag.

Mr. Cardin was unusually astute at massaging political egos and seeking quiet consensus. Mr. Mitchell also has these attributes, but sometimes he digs in his heels and simply demands loyalty. That led a number of younger delegates to complain last year about the speaker's autocratic and high-handed methods.

Still, there were no challengers when the Kent County delegate was nominated for another term as speaker on Wednesday. With a few new faces in the top leadership ranks, many delegates feel Mr. Mitchell may now ease his rule and try to avoid internal friction.

Yet this is not a happy and relaxed Clay Mitchell presiding over the House in his 21st year as a delegate. He is dogged by the state prosecutor's long-running investigation into a real estate purchase that involved Mark Vogel, the discredited owner of Maryland's two harness racing tracks.

Was there a quid pro quo with harness-racing legislation?

Or was Mr. Mitchell simply acting as passive middleman when Mr. Vogel stepped forward to buy a waterfront parcel in Crisfield that netted Mr. Mitchell and his son a $100,000 broker's fee?

State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli has been investigating this deal for 11 months and has yet to issue a verdict. On the surface, though, it does not appear that Mr. Mitchell is guilty of anything except poor judgment.

The House speaker should have recognized this had the appearance of a sweetheart deal, that Mr. Vogel would at some time need Mr. Mitchell's help with horse-racing legislation in Annapolis.

As a high-ranking public servant, Mr. Mitchell must remain above suspicion in his private dealings. He should have walked away from this deal, despite the huge fee involved.

He didn't and now operates under a cloud. No wonder he is short-tempered and humorless with many people.

Compounding Mr. Mitchell's problems is his off-again, on-again rapport with Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Since Mr. Mitchell may wind up opposing a number of key Schaefer bills, he could have a tough time staying out of the governor's doghouse.

Mr. Mitchell has the added difficulty of dealing with a House that has 35 new -- and unpredictable -- members. Worse yet, there are 9 more Republicans than the 16 last year and they are far more partisan than the accommodating GOP delegates of recent sessions. Before the session is over, the speaker's power may be sorely tested.

Yet Mr. Mitchell's strongest weapon is his intimate knowledge of budget and finances. After four terms in the House, he is the chamber's foremost authority on budgetary matters. In a year when budget deficits and tax proposals are paramount, this gives Mr. Mitchell tremendous influence.

He could have more clout than anyone in shaping the state budget, the state's transportation program and the outcome on tax reform. These are the issues that matter most in the 1991 General Assembly session, and Clay Mitchell holds all the high cards.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun. His column on Maryland politics and government appears

each Sunday.

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