Annapolis: Anatomy of a miscalculation Lawmakers thought the Arnick storm would blow over, but they were surprised

February 19, 1993|By Sandy Banisky and John W. Frece | Sandy Banisky and John W. Frece,Staff Writers Staff writers Michael Ollove and C. Fraser Smith contributed to this article.

Even before former lobbyist Judith A. Wolfer told her story to a Senate committee Feb. 8, legislative leaders and the governor's staff knew they had a problem.

She had faxed to the governor's office a statement she would read a few hours later to the Executive Nominations Committee, a statement in which she alleged that former Del. John S. Arnick had used vile sexist epithets during a dinner meeting a year ago.

This was stunning, the legislators concluded. But however serious her charges, the lawmakers could not imagine that a year-old dinner conversation would present an insurmountable obstacle as Mr. Arnick went before the committee for confirmation to a Baltimore County District Court judgeship.

"How," asked Montgomery County Sen. Howard Denis, "could so many intelligent people have miscalculated so fundamentally?"

In the days after Ms. Wolfer's testimony, Mr. Arnick and his

legislative supporters came to believe that the issue, like most controversial issues in Annapolis, could be managed. They'd hold another hearing if they had to to show the confidence Mr. Arnick's colleagues had in him. Then the Senate would vote to confirm. They would, as usual, control the situation.

The leaders of the legislature did not understand that the old Annapolis rules could not prevail here. After the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas sexual harassment hearings, after the allegations of sexual misconduct by Oregon Sen. Robert Packwood, after the Clinton-Bush-Perot election, the public was going to have a say. Marylanders were going to shout on radio call-in shows and jam legislative phone lines until their senators listened. And Mr. Arnick, 10 days later, would have to withdraw, saying he'd been blindsided "at the 11th hour and 59th minute."

But Mr. Arnick wasn't the only one in Annapolis who was blindsided. Lawmakers were suddenly hearing loud questions: Were legislators wrapped too snugly in a State House cocoon? Are women treated unfairly? Why couldn't politicians see the situation as clearly as their constituents?

When it was over, the public was satisfied that it had made itself heard, but Maryland's lawmakers were angry. Many believed a deserving colleague had been unfairly victimized by the media. Others resented the public charge that Annapolis is an insulated old boys' club out of touch with the real world.

Whatever their feelings, lawmakers were left with a sense that the Arnick episode would have a profound effect on the way the legislature does business.

Del. Brian McHale of Baltimore looked out at the House of Delegates on Wednesday, the day Mr. Arnick withdrew his nomination, and shook his head. "It's like a wake," he said. "Things will never be the same around here."

The shock

Gossip about the Arnick dinner had circulated in the State House for a year. But Ms. Wolfer and Nancy J. Nowak, the other lobbyist present that night, never would discuss it publicly. Neither wanted to anger Mr. Arnick, who chaired the Judiciary Committee, which then was considering the domestic violence bill they wanted passed. But secrets are hard to keep in Annapolis.

Mr. Arnick declined to be interviewed for this article. This account is based on interviews with more than three dozen people involved in the process that ended with his withdrawal.

On the last day of the session, the bill passed. Ms. Wolfer moved on to a new law practice in Takoma Park. Ms. Nowak stayed on Mr. Schaefer's staff until last month, when he named her head of parole and probation for the state.

Then Ms. Wolfer heard of Mr. Arnick's appointment to the bench and decided last month she would tell her story because she believed he could not fairly handle women's cases.

She notified the committee she wanted to testify, but it was not until hours before the panel was to meet Feb. 8 that the governor or any of the key players in Annapolis realized what she was going to say.

When a fax of her testimony came to the governor's office, Mr. Schaefer was surprised and concerned. "He took it pretty seriously," said press secretary Page W. Boinest. The governor's aides tried to weigh how much Ms. Nowak and the administration would be drawn into the matter.

About 3:30 that afternoon, Mr. Arnick was called to the office of Robert A. Pascal, the governor's appointments secretary, who showed him a copy of Ms. Wolfer's statement.

"He read it and said, 'I honestly can't remember,' " Mr. Pascal said. "He read it a couple more times, and said he vaguely remembered, but that he couldn't put it together. He said, 'I don't talk like this.' "

Mr. Pascal showed the statement to several senators, and soon word that the nomination was in trouble tore through the State House complex. The committee's hearing was packed.

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., a Kent County Democrat and friend of Mr. Arnick's for more than two decades, alerted several delegates that the nomination was in jeopardy. But he apparently knew neither the substance nor the severity of the charges.

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