'Nice-guy' Taylor scores in first term as speaker

April 11, 1994|By Robert Timberg and Marina Sarris | Robert Timberg and Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writers

He is, in his quiet, proper way, like a character out of Fitzgerald, a man who dreamed winter dreams as he tended bar in Western Maryland, then headed east to make those dreams come true.

Today, at 59, Casper R. Taylor Jr. is where he wants to be, in Annapolis, roaming the podium before the other 140 members of the House of Delegates, a doleful-looking penguin happily running the show.

With this year's 90-day General Assembly session ending at midnight today, Mr. Taylor finds himself on the verge of completing, by most accounts, an impressive debut as speaker of the House.

The plaudits have come from every direction, even from Republicans such as Howard County's Martin G. Madden, who keeps collaring reporters to relate some new tale of subtle Taylor graciousness.

It's no surprise he's a hit with his colleagues. His "let's-be-friends" approach to leadership and nice-guy image are a welcome relief to people used to the strong-arm tactics of his predecessor.

Of course, not everyone is enthralled. Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the House GOP leader, says Mr. Taylor has displayed little real leadership.

"I think Cas' goal this year has been to make the trains run on time and keep people happy -- the Democrats -- in order to get re-elected speaker next year," said Ms. Sauerbrey of Baltimore County.

Mr. Taylor has done more than make friends. In perhaps the defining event of the session, he stitched together an agreement that may well have kept the General Assembly from spinning out of control.

At issue were football stadiums, the one Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke wants to build in Laurel and the one Gov. William Donald Schaefer wants for Baltimore, if he can ever find a team to use it.

Tensions built between the two old warhorses and their legislative champions in the first part of the session. A younger warhorse, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., was unhappy, too.

Mr. Taylor brought the sides together, getting their signatures on a piece of paper that gave something to everyone while skillfully papering over differences, thus preventing a rancorous, divisive session.

For his efforts, he won fresh kudos, along with a commitment from Mr. Cooke to make Frostburg State University, in Mr. Taylor's Allegany County, the Redskins' summer home.

"I got to where I wanted to be," Mr. Taylor said of his diplomatic efforts. "Without being trite, I like to think I did it my way."

Not long after, Mr. Miller, who had clashed frequently with the previous speaker, R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., said, "Cas Taylor is a breath of fresh air. He's like a letter from home."

Years earlier, the idea that the son of a small town barkeep might become the first speaker from Western Maryland in 100 years was unlikely, a small-town fantasy.

But not unthinkable, because Cas Taylor even as a child thought in epic terms, and his parents scrimped to put him through college.

Attended Notre Dame

And not the local community college, either, but the University of Notre Dame, the intellectual and religious wellspring for Roman Catholic youth in America.

At the Indiana college, he rose to president of the Academy of Political Science, the prestigious student political club, rubbing shoulders with visiting dignitaries, such as then U.S. Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey.

His degree in his pocket, he trudged back to Cumberland, his hometown, a factory community nestled in the rugged mountains of Western Maryland. He went into business with his father, married his high school sweetheart, Mary "Polly" Young, and started a family.

He told his father, Casper Sr., of his interest in politics. Don't do it, the elder Taylor told his son, business and politics don't mix. But his mother, Zelma, sweet and introverted, cheered him on.

He joined local community groups, the Jaycees, the Elks, the Dapper Dan Club, rising within their ranks, biding his time.

The opening came in 1974. Though much of Western Maryland is Republican, the legislature created a single delegate district with a Democratic majority after the Supreme Court's landmark one-man, one-vote ruling. Mr. Taylor ran and won.

He was slimmer and more publicly playful when he came to Annapolis in 1975. He had more hair, too, or so it seemed, until you saw a furry spider flying at you in a bar and spied Mr. Taylor laughing his bald head off.

He gave up the toupee a few years back. He cut down on the time in local Annapolis bistros as well. Soon he was on the leadership ladder. In 1978, he was named vice chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, and nine years later, its chairman.

He made the committee his own. Deeply religious, he combined the qualities of a parish priest with those of a sympathetic bartender, offering a willing ear, a shoulder to lean on, occasional absolution to fellow members, cementing relationships by revealing intimate bits of himself.

He grew close to his committee members and, critics say, to the lobbyists who hung around them. One of the few criticisms of Mr. Taylor was that he was too cozy with lobbyists.

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