Former Sen. Phoebus' past bars his return to the state legislature

January 15, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

EASTON -- Former Maryland Republican lawmaker Harry T. Phoebus Jr.'s attempt to regain a seat in the General Assembly after a 25-year absence failed last night despite the backing of his home county's Central Committee and the reported willingness of Gov. William Donald Schaefer to pick him if the selection fell to the governor.

Republican central committees from Wicomico and Worcester counties voted to send former Crisfield Mayor Charles McClenahan to a House of Delegates seat vacated with the appointment of J. Lowell Stoltzfus to the state Senate.

Wicomico County Central Committee Chairman William Russell said last night's vote, which had the effect of rejecting the endorsement of Mr. Phoebus by Somerset County's central committee, was based upon "electability in 1994."

Mr. Phoebus, a member of a prominent Eastern Shore Republican family and a disbarred lawyer, served two years in the state Senate before he spent three months in a federal prison in 1966 for failing to file income tax returns.

Yesterday, Mr. Phoebus said he had hoped Lower Shore Republicans would let him put his past behind him.

"That was a long time ago," said Mr. Phoebus, who is known simply as "Harry T" to Somerset County residents. "People can change."

He was considered until yesterday the front-runner in a race among six candidates to fill the House seat vacated when Mr. Stoltzfus was appointed to the state Senate earlier this month. Mr. Stoltzfus, a freshman Republican in the House last year, succeeded veteran Sen. Lewis R. Riley, whom Governor Schaefer recently named deputy agriculture secretary.

With the rise of Mr. Stoltzfus to the Senate and Mr.Riley to the Cabinet, a scramble broke out among District 38 Republicans to fill the House seat, which is considered to be a particularly important post for conservatives in this year of low revenues and proposed tax increases.

Last Friday, the Somerset County Republican Central Committee picked Mr. Phoebus, 63, by a 4-3 vote as their candidate to become the new delegate. Mr. McClenahan, another popular Republican in the mostly Democratic district, came in second.

By state law, Senator Stoltzfus' successor in the House must come from Somerset, his home county. But because portions of District 38 are in Wicomico and Worcester, GOP committee members there have a say in who goes to the House.

Mr. Phoebus served in the state Senate from 1964 to 1966, filling out the unexpired term of his late father, the colorful and quixotic Harry T. Phoebus Sr., a one-time Senate minority leader who died in office.

But the younger "Harry T's" Senate career ended quickly after the Internal Revenue Service charged him with failing to file income tax returns for two years. Mr. Phoebus pleaded no contest and served 90 days in a federal prison in Allenwood, Pa.

At about the same time, the Maryland Court of Appeals suspended Mr. Phoebus, who had been a member of the bar since 1951, from practicing law in state courts.

A special federal court order restored his law license in 1970 and the 41-year-old Crisfield resident resumed his private practice.

But a year later, Mr. Phoebus faced censure once again by the State Bar Association for "professional misconduct" -- lying to several clients. And for the second time in five years, Mr. Phoebus lost his right to practice law in the state.

"I'm different now than I was then," Mr. Phoebus said yesterday. A real estate appraiser for a Salisbury firm who is active in community affairs, Mr. Phoebus said he was counting upon his recent good deeds to overshadow his troubled past.

Crisfield, which is close-knit, has judged me and found me worthy of respect," he said.

He would not have been the first person with a prison record to serve in Maryland's General Assembly. Dale Anderson, the former Baltimore County executive convicted of corruption charges in 1974, was elected in 1982 to a term in the House of Delegates.

Mr. Phoebus, as president of the local Chamber of Commerce, has praised Governor Schaefer's attempts to revitalize the Lower Shore's stagnant economy. Although the remarks raised a few eyebrows among local residents -- Somerset County continues to bear the highest unemployment rate in the state -- they won him the favor of the governor, whose aides said he had been leaning toward picking Mr. Phoebus for the House seat if the central committees could not agree on a single choice.

Mr. Phoebus said his two years in the Senate made him more prepared than any other local candidate to take a seat in the House, where he said he still has many friends among the leadership.

"I can function in that group quickly as opposed to somebody else who would be hunting for the men's room," he said.

But not all Republicans are as eager for Mr. Phoebus to represent District 38 as he is. In addition to wanting a productive delegate, Republicans want someone who can win the seat in a contested election three years from now.

"The guy is one intelligent person and could do the job," W. Blan Harcum Sr., a member of the Wicomico GOP Central Committee, said before yesterday's vote. "But his past is a question. No one's questioning his ability, it's the past. We do need to look at electability."

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