It won't soon be forgotten . . . The Arnick Affair

Bruce L. Bortz

February 25, 1993|By Bruce L. Bortz

NO DOUBT members of the Maryland General Assembly want to put the affaire d'Arnick behind them, particularly the 14 men on the Executive Nominations Committee who voted to confirm John S. Arnick's appointment to a District Court judgeship and then were left hanging there in a weekend fusillade of calls and messages from angry constituents.

That isn't the way legislative b'hoys like Frederick C. Malkus Jr., George W. Della Jr., Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Norman R. Stone Jr., F. Vernon Boozer and Nathan C. Irby Jr. ordinarily play the game. Nor is it the way they're ordinarily treated. But the Arnick Affair was anything but ordinary. And it isn't likely to go away, even after the General Assembly adjourns in April.

The affair could jeopardize the House speakership of R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. And, in the 1994 elections, it could not only doom any Mitchell candidacy for governor, but, perhaps more important, it could cause substantial legislative turnover and institutional change. It could do all of this if Mr. Mitchell and his associates in Annapolis fail to understand what happened in Annapolis last week.

The affair, of course, focused on Mr. Arnick, who was accused of using lewd and sexist language at a private dinner in Annapolis a year ago. But after Mr. Arnick, Mr. Mitchell is most likely to suffer the consequences. He clearly had positioned himself as the principal advocate for, and strategist of, the Arnick appointment.

And his looming presence during the confirmation process discouraged many from testifying against Mr. Arnick. They knew that, with Mr. Mitchell as speaker, telling Arnick tales in public was risky business.

Meantime, long after many politically frightened legislators had abandoned their former colleague, Mr. Mitchell held out hope of salvaging confirmation. Only when it became apparent that Nancy Nowak (a highly regarded state official) and four others were prepared to testify publicly about Mr. Arnick's behavior did the speaker reluctantly regard the nomination as doomed. In Mr. Mitchell's mind, Mr. Arnick's future had become more important than the legislature's integrity.

The speaker is the House coach, and Mr. Mitchell clearly muffed the job in the Arnick Affair. Did he or anyone else in authority ever sit Mr. Arnick down and explain to him that his behavior simply couldn't continue? Did the speaker implicitly condone Mr. Arnick's behavior? And since the controversy, has he promised action to rid the House of a festering and embarrassing problem -- sexual harassment by legislators?

In fact, Mr. Mitchell seems to have gone out of his way not to publicly condemn Mr. Arnick. And rather than issuing apologies or announcing institutional or personnel changes, he appears to have hunkered down until the storm blows over.

During the presidential campaign, there was a lot of talk about an elite Congress that exempts itself from laws applicable to everyone else. When it comes to sexual harassment, and a lot of other things, the same "we're unto ourselves" mentality apparently applies to the Maryland General Assembly.

The Arnick Affair opens the door wide for challengers in Maryland's 1994 legislative election, particularly if they are House members seeking to move to the Senate. By running against Annapolis' "old boy network," they may galvanize both female and male support at the polls. Not all of them will win, of course, but, at the very least, they will force incumbents who "just didn't get it" in the Arnick Affair to do a lot of uncomfortable explaining.

Bruce L. Bortz, editor of the Maryland Report newsletter, writes here every other Thursday.

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