Mitchell safe as speaker Montgomery's Kopp drops coup attempt as support wanes

December 15, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Staff Writer

Montgomery County Del. Nancy K. Kopp quit her bid to oust House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. yesterday for the most basic of all reasons: She didn't have enough votes to beat him.

"I fought a good fight," she said. "I think we have made some gains, and the campaign has served as a catalyst for reform."

But she said the support she had less than a week ago quickly evaporated after Gov. William Donald Schaefer "and some other outside parties" weighed in on Mr. Mitchell's behalf.

"The votes are no longer there," she said. "Rather than push it and unnecessarily cause problems for my supporters, I have decided to release them."

Mr. Mitchell, a Kent County Democrat who has held the House's top post for six years, could not immediately be reached for comment.

D. Bruce Poole, the Hagerstown delegate who serves as Mr. Mitchell's majority floor leader, however, called Ms. Kopp's decision to call off the ouster attempt "a wise move."

"Obviously, I think it would have been wise for her never to start this race, but now I think it is in the interests of the citizens of this state for it to come to a close."

Ms. Kopp, a 49-year-old, five-term delegate from Bethesda whom Mr. Mitchell elevated to speaker pro tem in 1991, was persuaded to launch the rare midterm challenge by a group of delegates who have become unhappy with Mr. Mitchell's authoritarian style of presiding over the 141-member House.

Some of the unhappiness stemmed from suburban county lawmakers who felt their populous jurisdictions were insufficiently represented in Mr. Mitchell's leadership hierarchy, and that the needs and desires of their constituents were too often ignored.

Ms. Kopp said Mr. Mitchell has agreed not to retaliate against her followers, although she acknowledged that she could no longer hold the second highest position in the House.

"The speaker has made this pledge and will make it again publicly, and I expect it will be carried out," she said. As for herself, she said: "I understand when you fight a fight and take a risk you pay a price, and I will no longer be speaker pro tem."

Mr. Poole said he would be surprised if the "ringleaders" of the attempted coup were not punished in some way.

"It's up to the speaker . . . but it is my understanding that the ringleaders will be treated differently than others in the coup movement. They'll have to naturally expect a penalty for what they've done and the havoc they have created," Mr. Poole said.

He declined to identify "ringleaders" by name, but much of Ms. Kopp's most vocal support came from her fellow Montgomery County delegates, including Gene W. Counihan, delegation chairman Brian E. Frosh and Peter Franchot, and from colleagues in neighboring Prince George's County, among them James C. Rosapepe and Paul Pinsky.

"Beyond them," Mr. Poole said, "we're going to reach out and get the membership back moving again."

Despite the defeat, Ms. Kopp said, "I'm glad I did this. I'm very glad I did it."

She said Mr. Mitchell had agreed to "institute some reforms that I believe should be effective in opening up the House, encouraging expression of diversity of opinion, and increasing the responsiveness between the membership and the leadership." The House's dormant Democratic Caucus also should be reinvigorated as a result of this challenge, she said.

Lieutenants from the two sides argued over some of the reforms proposed by the Kopp camp at a private meeting Sunday night in Montgomery County. Among the ideas that were rejected, according to one participant, were plans to have elected committee chairmen and to have a "committee on committees."

"One thing that this entire move has brought to the forefront is the need -- at least perceived by some -- that changes need to be made," Mr. Poole acknowledged. But he said some of the proposals "wouldn't benefit the House, and may actually slow down the process."

"It might not make us more responsive, but instead we would mimic the federal Congress and cause us to suffer their problems," he said.

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