For neither the first time nor the last, Marylanders saw their governor resign from office in January 1969. But the circumstances were both unprecedented and, so far at least, not to be repeated.
Gov. Spiro T. Agnew left Annapolis not in disgrace, not because he found a better offer, not because he was sick or wanted to spend more time with his family. He left because he had been elected vice president of the United States.
His selection, the previous August, to serve as the running mate for Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon had been a major surprise — the result, according to contemporary newspaper reports, of a strategy worked out by Nixon and South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond to attract votes in the South and border states. When the Nixon-Agnew ticket eked out a narrow victory over Democrat Hubert Humphrey, the Agnew pick seemed inspired; “Nixon’s ‘gamble’ paid off,” read a headline in The Sun that ran four days after the election (although, curiously, one of the border states Nixon and Agnew didn't carry was Maryland).
But Agnew’s win on the national stage must have caused him pause, for not only did it mean that he would leave the governor’s mansion with his term only half-finished, but it also meant that a Democrat would certainly succeed him. Maryland had no lieutenant governor at the time (and wouldn’t until voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1970), and Agnew’s successor would be chosen by the General Assembly, which was overwhelmingly Democratic (152-33).
By late November, however, Agnew had his departure plan worked out. He would wait until at least Jan. 1 of the new year to resign, and possibly wait as long as Jan. 15, when the General Assembly was due to begin its regular session. The key, he said in a release handed out Nov. 26, was to ensure an opportunity “to complete the affairs of the present administration in a manner which will provide the greatest assistance to my successor.”
By Jan. 7, he was ready. Before a special joint session of the assembly, Agnew handed over the reigns of government. Addressing the legislators, he said he was most proud of fiscal reforms his administration championed in 1967, while his biggest regret was failing to get voter approval for a new state constitution in May 1968.
And Agnew made what was perhaps an oblique reference to his controversial stance during the Baltimore riots following the April 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when he upbraided black leaders for not doing enough to stop them.
“We have defied the taboos and the anachronisms of generations, dared the unpopular view for what we held to be the popular good, stood fast in the name of justice and stood firm for the sake of law,” Agnew said in his address to the assembly. “If we were not at all times wise, who can say we were at any time timid?”
Agnew began his speech at noon (“At precisely 12 o'clock Governor Agnew will come down and do the state a turn,” Talbot County Del. Thomas Hunter Lowe had cracked in announcing the day’s schedule), and declared his resignation would be effective at 1 p.m. At 3:58 p.m., house speaker Marvin Mandel was elected by an “overwhelming” vote of the General Assembly.
And Agnew? On Jan. 20, he was inaugurated as vice president, spending much of the next five years as the mouthpiece for many of Nixon’s more controversial policies, becoming a hero of the right and earning the eternal enmity of many (including much of the press, which he memorably characterized as “nattering nabobs of negativism”).
Re-elected with Nixon in 1972, Agnew would resign as vice president on Oct. 10, 1973, the same day he pleaded no contest to a felony charge of tax evasion. He spent the remainder of his life largely shunning the spotlight, writing two books and settling in Rancho Mirage, Calif. One of his last public appearances was at Nixon’s funeral in April 1994. He died on Sept. 18, 1996, after collapsing at his summer home in Ocean City. He was 77.
In one of those twists of fate history fans love, Mandel — who was elected governor by Maryland voters in 1970 and 1974 — suffered a not dissimilar fate. In June 1977, after being convicted on mail fraud and racketeering charges, he took leave of the governorship; his lieutenant governor, Blair Lee III, was named acting governor. On Jan. 15, 1979, his convictions either overturned or on appeal, he took back the governorship for the remaining two days of his term, until incoming Gov. Harry Hughes could be inaugurated.
Clearly, the mid-20th century was a tough time for Maryland governors.