In an unexpected twist of legislative politics, Casper R. Taylor Jr., a former tavern owner from Western Maryland, emerged yesterday as heir apparent to R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. as speaker of the House of Delegates.
After 24 hours of intense politicking and a little help from the governor, Mr. Taylor received the unanimous blessing of the House's inner circle of Democratic committee chairmen. The group included four potential rivals who agreed during a 90-minute private meeting yesterday afternoon not to challenge Mr. Taylor.
Mr. Taylor, 58, said he was "overwhelmed" by it all.
As leader of the 141-member House, the speaker joins the Senate president and governor as the most powerful men in the state capital.
Mr. Taylor is perhaps best-known as the power behind Maryland's landmark health care reform act. The new law is supposed to make health insurance more available to employees of small companies, many of whom are uninsured.
On Monday, Mr. Mitchell set off a power scramble by saying he will resign from the General Assembly Jan. 3.
His announcement left the chamber looking for a new leader just weeks before the start of its last session before the 1994 election.
Mr. Mitchell backed a plan to elevate his second-in-command, Speaker Pro Tem Gary R. Alexander, to replace him as a one-year caretaker, since Mr. Alexander is not seeking another house term. That would have delayed what many expected to be a bruising battle for the top job until after the election.
But Mr. Taylor, a 19-year House veteran from Allegany County, began lobbying for a more permanent solution -- one that included him.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer also favored a long-term solution because he did not want to see his 1994 legislation languish under a short-timer who might not be willing to take bold initiatives.
He said he told legislators he "thought they were making a terrible mistake by having a caretaker. I said to them, 'Where's Cas Taylor?' "
When it became clear that Mr. Taylor would seek the speaker's job this winter no matter what, Mr. Alexander bowed out of the race. Although he had considerable support, Mr. Alexander said he did not want a battle that would divide his fellow Democrats.
Had Mr. Alexander stayed in, he also would have faced a problem of geopolitics. Both he and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. hail from Prince George's County, and lawmakers from other regions feared that power would be too concentrated there.
A victorious Mr. Taylor later heaped praise on Mr. Alexander, a lawyer who once served as his committee vice chairman. "The decision that Gary Alexander made today is in my judgment the most magnanimous decision he's ever made in his lifetime," he said.
Mr. Schaefer said he was "delighted, happy, pleased" to hear that Mr. Taylor was the apparent successor to Mr. Mitchell, who did not attend yesterday's meeting. "He works well with people," the governor said of Mr. Taylor.
Mr. Taylor must face two elections before becoming speaker, and it is possible that other candidates will emerge for the post.
House Democrats are scheduled to caucus in Annapolis at 3 p.m. Tuesday to choose a nominee. Democrats hold 116 of the 141 seats, so their choice will win the final election when the entire House convenes in January.
Mr. Taylor promised to keep the current leadership team on board for another year.
He also said he will choose a delegate from Baltimore County -- and possibly legislators from Anne Arundel County and Southern Maryland -- to fill vacancies on the leadership team. "Baltimore County needs a little room at the table. I think Anne Arundel and Southern Maryland perhaps need a little room at the table," Mr. Taylor said.
As it happens, delegates from those three regions supported his bid to be speaker this week.
Mr. Taylor's seat as chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee will be open, as is the vice chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee.
Mr. Taylor has chaired Economic Matters since 1987 and put his stamp on bills affecting insurance, banking, employment and economic development.
He has been a full-time lawmaker since selling his family-owned bar in Cumberland last year.
Mr. Taylor was president of a nonprofit foundation that survived an investigation by the state special prosecutor in 1991. The prosecutor found no evidence of financial wrongdoing by the volunteer Rocky Gap Foundation, which ran a music festival in Western Maryland.