Yesterday's unexpected resignation of House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell -- apparently for personal reasons -- removes from the State House scene a much-needed stabilizing force at the highest levels of Maryland government. The battle over succession -- especially the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that is sure to follow -- could leave the House of Delegates in turmoil for the coming General Assembly session.
Even if House leaders are able to reach agreement on a caretaker speaker for the 90-day meeting that starts in January, the jockeying for position will be hot and heavy as delegates shore up support in preparation for the post-election balloting for speaker late next year. Del. Gary Alexander of Prince George's County, who has served a year as speaker pro tem, appears most likely to emerge as the compromise choice for next session. But there are no clear favorites for 1995.
This concentration on internal House politicking could rob delegates of much of their clout in the State House. Under Mr. Mitchell, the House exerted strong influence by virtue of its unified leadership structure. Once the speaker and his chairmen put their imprimatur on a bill, there was no stopping it in the House. The same cannot be said of the Senate, which prides itself on its independence and its unpredictability.
Mr. Mitchell's resignation -- effective next Jan. 3 -- also hurts Gov. William Donald Schaefer and his plans for an ambitious final year in office. The speaker was the governor's trusted ally and intermediary with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. With Mr. Mitchell gone, the long-running Schaefer-Miller feud could become a real impediment to passage of key bills.
For some time, Mr. Mitchell had been complaining to his friends about the rigors of being House speaker. He was clearly tired of it. He was instrumental in getting the state through three horrendous years of recession and gigantic budget deficits. He was the focus of a lengthy legal investigation into his real estate dealings. He withstood a challenge to his leadership by a rump faction. He continually knocked heads with the Senate president and occasionally with the governor. He did the governor's bidding with delegates when Mr. Schaefer couldn't muster the votes himself.
It was a demanding, high-pressure job that he did not relish. Come January, for the first time in 27 years, Mr. Mitchell will be able to fulfill his family and personal obligations without concerning himself with the burdens of government. He has not been without his faults as House speaker, but he ran an efficient and quietly effective House of Delegates. As a plethora of potential successors plot their strategy, Clay Mitchell's firm hand will be missed. Keeping the House from splintering into feuding regional factions ought to be delegates' top priority next session.