Legislators accepted Arnick's flinty style

February 12, 1993|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Compiled by Tom Waldron, Laura Lipmann and Sandy BaniskyStaff Writer

If John Arnick spoke crudely to a woman lawyer from Takoma Park last year, his former colleague in the House of Delegates, Leon Billings, thinks he knows why.

Known in the legislature for a provocative speaking style, Mr. Arnick may have seen a chance to initiate a newcomer.

"He probably thought, 'If women want to play, then by God, they'll get a full dose,' " said Delegate Billings, a Montgomery County Democrat. While condemning the abusive language attributed to Mr. Arnick, Mr. Billings and other House members said Mr. Arnick routinely hazed lobbyists and legislators to see if they could take it.

Accused now of referring to women as "lying bitches," of using crude references to female anatomy and of telling ethnic jokes, Mr. Arnick finds himself in danger of losing one of the most coveted rewards for a long and loyal career in politics, a judgeship.

His accuser, Judith A. Wolfer, said the 59-year-old criminal lawyer from Dundalk made offensive comments during a dinner last year as she was attempting to win his support for a domestic violence bill. She made her allegations Monday before a state Senate committee deciding whether to confirm his appointment by Gov. William Donald Schaefer as a District Court judge.

The allegations, while challenging Mr. Arnick's qualifications, have also triggered a clash of sharply different cultures: the real world vs. the cushy, insulated and still male-dominated world of Annapolis, where John Arnick was a major player for almost 30 years.

The crudest language and the worst expression of male chauvinism are no longer common in the General Assembly, but they are not unheard of and they are not shocking. While lapses of taste might be condemned elsewhere, they are forgiven without a thought in the knowledge that every vote matters -- and every day brings a new issue. The legislature is a realm of infinite forgiveness, a place where grudges can be liabilities.

As unwelcome as his alleged comments were in the Assembly, John Arnick's flinty style served him well for decades.

He was the trusted ramrod of legislative business in the House of Delegates, serving as Democratic majority leader under three different House speakers. He was first elected in 1966, when few women served, and quickly became one of its most powerful delegates, a man who knew law and procedure -- and used them with surpassing skill.

Mr. Billings and others said they have no doubt that Mr. Arnick, who resigned his House seat last fall, has all the qualities of deliberation, judgment and concern for human beings that are ++ needed to make an exemplary judge.

But his language and swagger suggested just the opposite of proper judicial temperament to some. He seemed to cultivate a veneer of tough-guy impatience -- dismissing questions, walking off haughtily, trying to shock people with deliberately coarse language, according to his colleagues. His supporters often didn't approve of the way he expressed himself, but they tried to understand it.

"Does he get any credit for not discriminating in his irreverence?" asked Delegate Billings. "He was equally outspoken irrespective class, gender, race or religion," he said.

"He's from the old school," said Del. Leslie Hutchinson. "This is a citizen legislature and John is a citizen from Dundalk. He didn't go to the Gilman School. He didn't go to Princeton. He grew up in Dundalk and he doesn't put on airs."

"I have two images of him," said Del. John Gary of Anne Arundel. "One is when he was very gentlemanly with women. In other situations, he has conducted himself in a way you wouldn't want in a legislator. . . . When he's had a lot to drink he can be a nasty bastard."

"He can be profane," said Del. Robert S. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican -- who nevertheless expressed great affection for Mr. Arnick and respect for his ability. Sen. Paula Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat, said Mr. Arnick's alleged remarks must be weighed against long years of service to the Assembly. Like Mr. Kittleman, she said, legislators were indebted to Mr. Arnick. Women often approached him for advice on how best to get bills on legal issues passed.

But other legislators said privately that they have been made uncomfortable by Mr. Arnick's style and worry that his words convey a level of hostility to women and perhaps to others.

Few of these critics have come forward, however. Mr. Arnick benefits from an ethos that makes Assembly leadership untouchable. Though he is gone, his allies and friends remain -- many of them in position to kill bills or block appointments to an important committee.

The shark

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