House Speaker Taylor is hit with unprecedented criticism

After 27 years, legislator's honeymoon with Allegany is over

May 07, 2000|By Michael Dresser | By Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND -- In a normal year, this would be a time for House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. to relax and enjoy springtime in his beloved Western Maryland after a productive General Assembly session.

But this is a miserable May for the powerful speaker, who has become the target of unusually harsh hometown criticism over his handling of local and statewide issues.

"You are looking at a very wounded man, spiritually wounded. I'm not kidding you," Taylor lamented last week in his downtown district office. "In 27 years, I've never gone through what I've been going through right now. I'm being crucified with lies and distortions."

The 65-year-old Democrat, whose mastery of the House of Delegates is unquestioned, is taking a pounding in once-friendly newspaper columns and radio talk shows in his native Cumberland.

On one flank are sportsmen who feel betrayed over his support for Gov. Parris N. Glendening's gun safety bill. On the other are parents outraged by Taylor's opposition to the school board's decision to move forward with a money-saving school consolidation plan.

From the hills are coming potshots over his support for a racetrack in rural Little Orleans.

Taylor remains popular among Allegany County's leaders, but there are signs of problems at the grass roots, where some see him as a remote and autocratic figure.

Moms at Little League fields are criticizing his immensely successful efforts to bring jobs to Western Maryland as so much prison-building.

Student council members at a Cumberland high school have circulated a bulletin questioning his ethics and describing him as "our so-called Allegany County `god.'"

The mounting damage has prompted some local activists to speculate that the once-unassailable Taylor - who has never had a primary opponent or been in a close general election race in a quarter-century in the General Assembly - could be vulnerable if he seeks re-election.

"There are people, Republicans and Democrats, who are searching for someone to run against him who would be a viable candidate," said Kimi-Scott McGreevy, a Cumberland mother and Democrat supporting the school board's fight with Taylor over school closings.

Any insurgent candidacy would be the longest of long shots. Even local Republican leaders say they want Taylor to stay where he is.

"Cas does so much for Western Maryland. If we would ever lose him as speaker of the House, Allegany County and all of Western Maryland would suffer," said Dale R. Lewis, a Republican county commissioner and member of the GOP central committee.

In Annapolis, Taylor is regarded as Western Maryland's greatest political asset. As House speaker since 1994, he has used the influence of his office to win hundreds of millions of state and federal dollars for projects in the economically distressed region.

The value of his influence is nowhere more apparent than in downtown Cumberland, a city that is showing signs of a rebound after decades of decline caused by the loss of major industrial employers.

Standing on the platform of the historic Western Maryland Railway terminal, under restoration with money the speaker brought home, Taylor pointed to where his legacy is taking shape.

There's the parkway that will run to the airport, thanks to $50 million in state funds. There's Canal Place, a $250 million state and federal project that will bring the now-dry C&O Canal back into the heart of Cumberland, where tourists will be able to ride like 19th-century travelers on canal boats pulled by mules.

"I'd like to leave this place better than I found it," Taylor said.

His efforts have won him the gratitude of many local citizens.

Gino Giatras, owner of the 82-year-old Coney Island and Curtis hot dog shop, refused a visitor's offer to pay for a lunch with the speaker.

"Without Cas up here in Western Maryland, there'd be no money," Giatras said. "At least we got a foothold with Cas."

But with local unemployment down by almost half from its 1992 peak of 13.3 percent, some constituents feel free to question the type of jobs Taylor has brought to Allegany County.

"All he's done is bring prisons and ... a playground for the rich at Rocky Gap," said Nina Rizer of Cumberland. She was one of several county residents to express resentment over the state-funded Rocky Gap resort, for which Taylor was the leading advocate.

With no recent polls available, it is difficult to tell whether Taylor is in serious political trouble. But even if the recent attacks are merely the work of a vocal minority, they are finding their target in the proud and sometimes touchy former tavern owner.

"I'm hurt. I don't think I've ever been as hurt in my life as I have been in the last month," Taylor said.

Some of the criticism is being fanned by the National Rifle Association and gun-rights groups over his role in passing Glendening's landmark gun-safety legislation.

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