Contest for speaker's job challenges House loyalties Rivals compete for support of Prince George's delegates

December 14, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Staff Writer

After 17 legislative sessions in relative obscurity, Prince George's County Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. suddenly finds himself a very popular guy.

Not only does House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, suddenly think he is leadership material, but so does Nancy K. Kopp, the Montgomery County delegate who decided last week to challenge Mr. Mitchell for the top job in the House of Delegates.

Vying for support among the House's 116 Democrats, both Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Kopp have offered Mr. Vallario the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee.

Forget that the Judiciary post will not be vacant unless the current chairman, Baltimore County Del. John S. Arnick, is either ousted or, as expected, is appointed to the bench. And forget that Mr. Mitchell had all but named Southern Maryland Del. J. Ernest Bell II as Mr. Arnick's successor. None of that matters to candidates suddenly competing for support from the large Prince George's County delegation.

Last week, Mr. Vallario manned the phones on Mr. Mitchell's behalf, helping pin down support for the speaker. But Mr. Vallario is nothing if not candid: "I'm loyal," the Suitland lawyer says, "until a better offer comes along." What he is interested in most, he says, is "What's in it for Prince George's?"

The rare mid-term challenge to a presiding officer convulsed the 141-member House this past week. Delegates burned up the phone lines trading scenarios, what-if's and maybe's. Everybody wanted to talk about who's in and who's out, although hardly anyone wanted to see his name in print for fear of offending the eventual winner.

Both sides unleashed their "spin doctors" to declare victory before the battle was even joined.

"It's a rout," said Del. D. Bruce Poole of Hagerstown, the Democratic floor leader of the House. Others on Mr. Mitchell's team said claims by Ms. Kopp that the race was anywhere near close were "preposterous." One said: "It's a shutout."

Mr. Mitchell, a conservative Eastern Shoreman who has been speaker the past six years, boasted of having 74 votes and counting. The House's Democratic caucus will cast its votes for speaker sometime before the 1993 General Assembly convenes at noon on Jan. 13. A 59-vote majority is needed to win.

Ms. Kopp's advice was not to believe everything you hear.

"It does happen sometimes that some people give the same answer to two different people," she said.

As Mr. Mitchell defended his territory against the attack from Ms. Kopp -- the Wellesley-educated, second-ranking Democrat in the House -- both candidates appealed to the personal ambitions and jurisdictional parochialism of their fellow lawmakers.

The process left delegates asking themselves, "What's in it for me?" or "What's in it for my jurisdiction?"

If the challenge did nothing else, it left a bill of complaints at Mr. Mitchell's feet, among them that he had been too partial to his fellow rural legislators in parceling out leadership positions and too stingy with Baltimore and the big suburban counties where most Marylanders live.

He immediately moved to answer that complaint by promising to move Mr. Vallario into the soon-to-be-vacated Judiciary Committee chairmanship and Del. Gary Alexander, also of Prince George's, into the slot of speaker pro tem -- a job Ms. Kopp will lose if Mr. Mitchell survives the coup.

To appeal to blacks and Baltimore delegates, Mr. Mitchell is said to be considering replacing Mr. Alexander as vice chairman of the Economic Matters Committee with Elijah E. Cummings. Mr. Cummings, a black lawmaker from Baltimore, was passed over for an expected committee chairmanship when Mr. Mitchell unilaterally disbanded one of the House's six standing committees this fall.

Like Mr. Vallario, Mr. Cummings also finds himself rising in popularity these days. Ms. Kopp has upped the bidding: She wants Mr. Cummings to be her speaker pro tem.

"I think this is a golden opportunity for African-American legislators to get something out of this," Mr. Cummings acknowledged. "The African-Americans in this state have been the most loyal constituency for the Democratic Party, so we deserve fair representation in the leadership of the House."

Ms. Kopp says many delegates are simply unhappy with Mr. Mitchell's often authoritarian style. They complain he stifles debate, makes policy unilaterally and often fails to consult even members of his own leadership.

"This is not a campaign against Clay Mitchell, individual, who is an old friend, but against a style of leadership that doesn't work as well anymore," Ms. Kopp said.

Mr. Mitchell replied that after six years as speaker dealing with divisive issues such as abortion, tax increases, severe budget cutbacks, and congressional and legislative redistricting, it is no surprise he has enemies. He said he is already trying to address some of the concerns that have been raised, and remains boldly confident he will be speaker in the next two years.

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