Kopp seeks to overthrow Mitchell as House speaker Leader's style sparks uprising

December 11, 1992|By John W. Frece and William Thompson | John W. Frece and William Thompson,Staff Writers Staff writer Marina Sarris contributed to this article.

Montgomery County Del. Nancy K. Kopp, the second-rankin Democrat in the House of Delegates, has launched an attempt to overthrow House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr.

Both lawmakers claimed yesterday to have enough votes to win the job.

Mr. Mitchell, the conservative Democrat from Kent County who has commanded the House with a rigid hand since being elected to the top post in 1987, spent the day in a frenetic series of closed-door meetings to assess and pin down his support.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer pitched in with calls of his own on the speaker's behalf, as did aides to Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, legislators said.

Afterward, Mr. Mitchell boldly predicted he will remain speaker for at least the next two years, the balance of the legislature's current four-year term.

But Ms. Kopp, whom Mr. Mitchell elevated to the post of speaker pro tem, said she is not backing down.

She insisted she has more than the 59-vote majority needed to unseat Mr. Mitchell and said she and her backers believe it is time for a change in the style of the House leadership.

"It's always dangerous to challenge the speaker, but at the moment I have more than enough votes [to win], and I think they'll stick," she said.

The sudden attack on Mr. Mitchell follows a contentious special legislative session in which Montgomery County delegates complained they were ignored by the strong-willed and often stubborn speaker when they asked him to consider alternate budget-balancing plans. Mr. Mitchell refused and instead pushed through a plan considered particularly harmful to Montgomery.

"For the pot to be boiling this hard, there has to be a lot of dissatisfaction," said Del. Brian Frosh, chairman of Montgomery's House delegation.

Ms. Kopp said that about two weeks ago, several delegates from different parts of the state approached her with concerns about Mr. Mitchell's "autocratic" style and asked her to run. Initially, she said, she declined.

"I felt I had the responsibility as speaker pro tem to attempt to work with leadership and try to solve the problem," she said. But when she attempted to meet with Mr. Mitchell, she said, he did not make himself available.

Ms. Kopp and others backing her said incidents during the special session were only the latest in a long series of problems they have had with Mr. Mitchell. Among their complaints:

* Mr. Mitchell recently dissolved one of the House's six standing committees without first thoroughly discussing the decision and its many ramifications with House members.

* The speaker has unilaterally killed bills he did not like, such as a reforestation measure several years ago, and has repeatedly stifled free debate on the House floor, with several delegates citing the quick-gavel tactics he used to cut off opposition during the special session.

* After advocating a restructuring of government and the avoidance of higher taxes, Mr. Mitchell later made support for a large tax increase in 1992 the "leadership position," dividing the House and leaving some delegates who had initially followed him in the lurch.

* He has placed a disproportionately high number of rural legislators in top leadership posts, ignoring Baltimore and the more populous suburban counties. Blacks and women also complain they are often left out.

Mr. Mitchell acknowledged some of the complaints yesterday, saying that as a result of the coup attempt he now is considering putting more delegates from the larger jurisdictions in leadership positions.

He indicated, however, that neither Ms. Kopp nor fellow Montgomery County Del. Gene W. Counihan, the vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, were likely to be part of the next leadership team. Montgomery delegates, who have led this uprising, are not likely to fare well, he said.

"I think it is pretty obvious that if your enemies come from a certain area, they can't expect to go away without any retribution," Mr. Mitchell said.

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