House speaker casts wider net

Leader: For Casper Taylor, a broader, more progressive agenda is key to the state's -- and his -- future.

March 11, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

On the dais, one hand in his pocket and the other lazily swinging the House speaker's gavel, Casper R. Taylor Jr. looks as if he just wandered in to watch some mediocre legislative theater.

There's a debate going on about lowering the blood-alcohol level at which a person can be convicted of driving while intoxicated. As delegates argue into their microphones, Taylor leans against the wall between two flags so that, in profile, only his belly is visible. After the 116-17 vote to lower the level to 0.08 percent, Taylor joins in, muttering, "Declared passed," with all the drama of a subway driver announcing a stop.

The casual observer might never guess that Taylor cares strongly about the bill, that it's third on his annual priority list and so has the impressive number House Bill 3, and that without his backing, the measure probably would have stalled in committee.

Since his election as speaker of the House of Delegates in 1994, Taylor has used the office to become one of the foremost policy-makers in Maryland. In contrast to his predecessors, he publishes a yearly legislative agenda, and his members do not mess with it lightly.

This time of year, the 66-year-old former tavern owner plods between committee rooms and his chairmen's offices, sometimes rushing his soup lunch, to make sure his top bills are proceeding apace.

His 15-bill list this session includes some strikingly liberal-leaning legislation, including a proposal to extend health-care coverage to 60,000 of the working poor; a prescription drug plan that would give elderly people pharmacy discounts; tax credits for construction of environmentally friendly buildings; and grants to train people coming off welfare for jobs that provide so-called "living" wages.

Taylor also has given strong support to some of the governor's most-debated priorities, such as targeting 25 percent of state contracts to minority businesses and a bill to include gays and lesbians among those who cannot be discriminated against in housing and employment.

Especially for a politician from Western Maryland, these positions are not obvious ones, says Keith Haller, a pollster with Potomac Survey Research in Bethesda.

"It's quite exceptional for a speaker of the House to pursue a kind of a broad progressive statewide agenda," Haller says. "You will not find another speaker, I don't think, anywhere in the country so bold and aggressive on a wide range of issues as witnessed in this legislative session."

A smart politician

Some lawmakers say Taylor has become more progressive as his speakership whas worn on. Others say he is simply a smart politician: If he wants to remain in office, his priorities must reflect those of his members.

In the 1998 election, six conservative Republicans lost House seats to liberal Democrats, points out House GOP leader Robert H. Kittleman of Howard County.

"He looked at the new composition and decided he had to move. The caucus [of House Democrats] got more liberal, and so did he," he said. "A lot of that stuff on his agenda doesn't reflect his personal philosophy at all. That's not wrong, that's the way the body works."

The liberal politics of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who won re-election easily in 1998, has also affected the House agenda, lawmakers say. A recent poll conducted for The Sun found that most Marylanders have staunchly liberal views.

The leadership agenda is not Taylor's alone, although his unquestioned influence largely determines its success. Some bills on it are put there by request, such as one to create a women's health office, which the women's caucus wanted, or the "green buildings" bill, a project of Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat.

Regardless of the speaker's motivation, Del. Leon G. Billings, a Montgomery County Democrat and one of the most liberal House members, is pleased that his role as his party's "squeaky wheel" has diminished thanks in large part to Taylor.

"I think that he has discovered that his more conservative constituency is not going to support him anyway, so he has nothing to lose and everything to gain by pursuing a more progressive agenda," Billings said.

By focusing on relatively nondivisive topics such as education, economic development and health-care funding, Taylor has affected state policy while helping unify the caucus, Billings added.`The legislature now has a voice that it's probably never had before," said Del. Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat.

A moderate approach

Taylor says he is simply trying to hew a moderate course -- one that reflects his own politics -- while remaining mindful of his membership.

"My basic beliefs have not changed. My basic convictions hopefully will never change," he said. "But the state of Maryland is more liberal than the overall mainstream of America. I believe that I pay attention to that.

"What I'm trying to avoid -- what I'm urging this nation to avoid -- is having this nation dominated by the extremes on either end."

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