House speaker is the heft behind state's budget ax


ANNAPOLIS -- When a teen-aged Clayton Mitchell pitched for the local baseball team, he was known more for his control than his speed.

Decades later, he's still known for his control, only this time he exercises it over his fellow legislators.

As speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, 55-year-old R. ** Clayton Mitchell Jr. still plays hardball.

The one-time gentleman farmer has positioned himself as The Force To Be Reckoned With in the struggle to resolve the state's budget crisis.

A reserved man whose fiscal conservatism runs as deep as his Eastern Shore roots, Mr. Mitchell is the one vote needed to get a significant tax package through the legislature this winter, friends and adversaries say.

That's not because the Kent County Democrat needs to break a tie in the 141-member House. Rather, his support is key because of the power he wields over his chamber.

Five years ago, his fellow delegates first chose him to lead them, and lead he did.

"He's not a man to be loud and gregarious, but he has a quiet confidence that lets everyone know he's in charge," said his right-hand man, House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington.

A Republican leader, however, sees it a bit differently. "Last term, he ran the House with an iron fist," said Minority Whip Robert H. Kittleman, R-Howard.

Mr. Mitchell also proved to be the hardest sell when it came to taxes last year. He held out the longest before finally agreeing to higher levies on cigarettes, some carryout foods and certain types of investment income.

He nearly killed efforts to raise Motor Vehicle Administration fees. He gave in before a special session in June only after he became convinced that Maryland would lose federal money for transportation projects unless it could raise its required matching funds.

Meanwhile, state government went through round after round of drastic cuts to balance a growing deficit. Hundreds of state workers lost their jobs as the state slashed about $1 billion from agencies, schools, local governments and health and welfare programs. Protesters flocked by the hundreds to Annapolis.

Critics say Mr. Mitchell's stubbornness kept the state from solving its financial problems before they wreaked irreversible havoc on the lives of the disabled, the poor, students and city dwellers.

Supporters say the speaker is the taxpayer's best friend.

HTC "Clay has been portrayed as the big meanie, the guy with the [budget] ax and no heart," Mr. Poole said. "People misread him, because he's not that way. He saw the voters weren't ready for tax increases, and he also saw that this economy is in a coma."

But the deficit continues to loom -- an estimated $1.2 billion next fiscal year -- and now Mr. Mitchell must decide how much he is willing to bend this legislative session.

He has a timeline: He wants the House to spend 45 days wielding the budget ax.

For example, he suggested, it can hack away at colleges and universities, Medicaid programs and maybe even elementary, middle and high schools.

Once the House has cut everything it can, "we start talking about taxes," he said.

His hard-nosed approach has brought about friction with some members of his own leadership team -- the delegates he counts on to maintain discipline.

Mr. Mitchell maintains control in many ways, private and public.

His hand-picked lieutenants run the standing committees, round votes and present a united front to the public.

"He's a master of silence and the long glance," one colleague said, although he added that the speaker is reasonable and willing to listen to differing points of view.

Mr. Mitchell is definitely not afraid to enforce the rules.

Take the case of former Del. Juanita Miller, D-Prince George's, who wanted students to sing a spiritual in the House on Martin Luther King Jr. Day two years ago.

Mr. Mitchell said no. The group sang the song. The speaker promptly reassigned Ms. Miller to another committee.

Rank-and-file Democrats and even Republicans know the score. They rarely challenge their committee chairmen during floor debate no matter how strongly they object to a bill, an unwritten House custom.

Critics say the leadership system, which Mr. Mitchell inherited, refined and enforced, stifles the democratic process.

Some delegates wonder why they should bother to attend House sessions when the outcome of every vote seems to be largely pre-determined, Mr. Kittleman said.

Since a Republican protest last year, the minority whip said, a few more delegates have challenged their chairmen on bills.

Supporters contend that Mr. Mitchell is simply being a leader and keeping chaos at bay.

"There are 141 egos out there. Someone has got to take the wheel and take charge," Mr. Poole said. "If you don't, you'll end up like the U.S. Congress."

Mr. Mitchell says he's a "consensus builder," not a dictator. In fact, he said he sometimes doesn't exert enough control over his leadership team.

"He is hard-headed and stubborn, and I personally consider those to be virtues and not vices," said Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall, an old pal who served with Mr. Mitchell on the Appropriations Committee.

Unlike many politicians, Mr. Mitchell is not afraid to tell people "no" when they demand too much of government, Mr. Neall explained.

Mr. Mitchell tries to exercise discipline in his personal life as well. An ex-smoker and teetotaler, he rises at 6 a.m. and climbs onto a treadmill for a 45-minute workout before a 12-hour workday during the legislative session.

He also works at a family-owned Radio Shack, sells real estate and leases about 300 acres of his family farm to other farmers.

H. Hurtt Deringer, editor and publisher of the Kent County News, played high school baseball and basketball with Mr. Mitchell.

Mr. Deringer remembers the future speaker as "a very popular person, an outgoing person and a good dancer."

With a nifty, multicolored Chevy, "he cut quite a figure at Chestertown High in 1953," the editor said.

Mr. Mitchell has remained loyal to Chevrolets, now driving a 10-year-old Caprice.

As a young man, Mr. Mitchell worked as a farmer and Kent County commissioner.

At 34, he arrived in Annapolis. He rose under the tutelage of former Del. John R. Hargreaves, a stern, gruff-voiced fellow Eastern Shoreman who chaired the Appropriations Committee.

From Mr. Hargreaves, Mr. Mitchell learned how to make his underlings toe the line, eventually graduating to the chairman's seat himself.

Along the way, Mr. Mitchell acquired a reputation as a budget expert, a devoted family man and the protector of the Shore from state efforts to regulate development.

Mr. Mitchell still manages to keep a hand in Kent County politics.

In testimony to his power there, no one in either party has

challenged him for his House seat in 21 years.

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