Speaker Mitchell's sudden exit

November 16, 1993

The shock waves from House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr.'s announcement that he is stepping down on Jan. 3 won't stop reverberating off the State House walls for months. Mr. Mitchell was a calming influence in Annapolis. His decision to quit in a hurry robs Maryland government of its equilibrium.

Who will succeed the 57-year-old Kent County delegate? A compromise choice for the interim, 1994 session could well be Del. Gary Alexander of Prince George's County, who has been speaker pro tem for a year. But after next fall's statewide elections, a free-for-all is likely to break out among potential speakers: Casper Taylor and Bruce Poole of Western Maryland, Ronald Gunns of the Eastern Shore, Nancy Kopp of Montgomery County, Tim Maloney of Prince George's County and Howard "Pete" Rawlings of Baltimore City.

Redistricting and a host of freshmen delegates could substantially change the dynamics of the House election for speaker. Regional disputes could play a big role in deciding the winner. If a Democrat is elected governor, that person would most likely help pick the next speaker. But if a Republican becomes governor, Democrats in the House will select the speaker themselves.

Mr. Mitchell's seven years as House leader have been trying ones. He was instrumental in surmounting a giant budget deficit in the recession years and stabilizing Maryland's financial picture. He became Gov. William Donald Schaefer's strongest legislative ally, serving as a go-between when the governor was feuding with the equally mercurial Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Through it all, Mr. Mitchell remained calm and collected. His reserved but firm style helped keep the wheels of government from grinding to a halt. He continued the tradition of a strong House leader who could dictate which bills pass and what bills fail. This offered a refreshing counter-balance to the chaotic Senate that seemed on the verge of lurching out of control.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Mitchell chose not to finish his duties as speaker and a delegate next year. The chances of the House slipping into disorder and feuding factions looms as the 1994 session approaches. The lack of a strong House speaker could also endanger the governor's hopes for passage of major legislation such as a new school-aid formula and a revamped welfare program.

Clay Mitchell will be sorely missed in Annapolis. He proved to be a capable and firm House leader with expertise in fiscal matters. He was a much-needed peacemaker. And he was adept at coming up with the votes to pass controversial measures. Such skills in a leader are hard to find.

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