A revolt that failed

Bruce L. Bortz

December 17, 1992|By Bruce L. Bortz

WHEREVER you went Tuesday in Maryland -- jury assembl rooms, fast-food eateries, bus stops, office lobbies -- people were gabbing not about the keno controversy, nor America's heart-warming Somali rescue mission, nor Bill Clinton's economic summit, but about Maryland Del. Nancy K. Kopp's failed attempt to oust Del. R. Clayton Mitchell as speaker of the House of Delegates.

Just kidding, of course. Most Marylanders couldn't tell Clayton Mitchell, the delegate from Kent County, from Clayton Moore, the actor who played the Lone Ranger in the long-running television series.

But they should. What Maryland's House speaker does eventually affects Marylanders. And in the political vacuum created by Gov. William Donald Schaefer's lame-duck status, he has become the state's most powerful official.

Why? First, he will appoint the House's "other leaders" -- the committee chairmen and vice chairmen, as well as his own cadre of assistants, and they will keep their posts only if they don't cross the speaker. But more important, he will determine which bills get serious and prompt consideration and which are consigned to the periphery of the law-making process.

In a Speaker Mitchell vs. Speaker Kopp comparison, it's hard to imagine two more different styles. Mr. Mitchell, 56, is a 22-year legislative veteran and fiscal conservative from the Eastern Shore who revamped his leadership circle just last year to soften his "tough-guy" image. With his no-nonsense approach, floor debate in the House is brief, if it takes place at all. Mr. Mitchell spends most of his time with legislators, giving very short shrift to the media.

Ms. Kopp, a 49-year-old, five-term delegate from Bethesda, has practically grown up in the House. Bookish and conciliatory, her House would have been more Senate-like than Mr. Mitchell's: more deliberative, less adversarial, more accessible to the press and doubtless more friendly to her home county.

Delegate Kopp abandoned her effort Monday, noting that the votes she had counted earlier had dissipated. Mr. Schaefer was among those who supported the speaker against a rare midterm challenge.

"I fought the good fight," Ms. Kopp said. She also sent a message: "Watch how you operate, Mr. Speaker, or there could be a rebellion the next time you turn around."

Hers was not a solo effort. Montgomery County's House delegation head, Brian Frosh, who had had a public tiff with Mr. Mitchell last month, supported the coup, as did other suburban legislators who feel the populous subdivisions are getting short shrift in the 141-member House of Delegates. Blair Lee IV, a former county lobbyist and now a columnist for the Montgomery Journal, has been beating the drum for years: County legislators like Ms. Kopp, he has written, must cease being pushovers in Annapolis. Rather than look out for the state's general interest, they must pursue a "Montgomery County first" agenda, Mr. Lee says.

Also behind the Kopp effort was a sense that Mr. Mitchell has been unkind to female House members. When Del. Anne Perkins, D-Baltimore, quit the legislature this year, Mr. Mitchell dissolved her committee. Then, during November's battle over the passing of Social Security payments from the state to the subdivisions, Ms. Kopp tried unsuccessfully to gain Mr. Mitchell's support for an alternative proposal. "Let's at least discuss these legitimate and reasonable possibilities," she said, to no avail.

As speaker pro tem (the speaker's second in command), Ms. Kopp theoretically had a place in the Mitchell-led inner circle and a voice in "big-decision" meetings, but Mr. Mitchell apparently refused to give her an audience.

Even some Mitchell supporters hope the speaker, surprised and angered by the attempted coup, will have heard the message. They hope he will consult more often, and with more people, before charging ahead with big decisions. But they also know that there is need for tight discipline in the big, unwieldy House, and that, next April 13, all legislators will be judged on one thing: what they accomplished in the General Assembly in the preceding 90 days.

Bruce L. Bortz is editor of the Maryland Report newsletter and Channel 45 political analyst. He writes fortnightly on Maryland politics.

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