A "burned out" House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. announced yesterday that he is resigning from the General Assembly Jan. 3, leaving the chamber scrambling to find a replacement.
Mr. Mitchell will end a 23-year career in the House of Delegates, the last seven of which he ruled as a speaker known for fiscal conservatism and an iron fist.
"I'm burned out, that's all," he said after announcing his decision in a private meeting with his committee leaders.
Hoping to avoid a major battle over his replacement, the speaker backed a plan to elevate Speaker Pro Tem Gary R. Alexander, an attorney from the same Prince George's County district as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.
Mr. Alexander has said he will not run for the House again and therefore would not be a threat to others who might want the speaker's post after the 1994 general election.
Mr. Mitchell, a Democrat from Kent County, said he has no immediate job plans and doesn't want to consider any for a while.
"I want to go home and do some relaxing and be with my family. I'm 57 years old. I want to be with my grandchildren for a while, for a change. I just want to enjoy my grandchildren. The growing up years with my kids, I missed a lot of that. I don't want to miss that with my grandchildren."
Many of his closest allies said they were surprised by his sudden announcement, although Mr. Mitchell has expressed reservations about the $38,000-a-year job for some time.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer said Mr. Mitchell told him last year that he wanted out.
"I talked to him and told him how important he was to me personally and to the state and legislative process, and that we really needed his leadership in the House," said Mr. Schaefer, who has considered Mr. Mitchell a political ally.
Mr. Mitchell decided to continue as speaker and crushed an attempt by Montgomery County Del. Nancy K. Kopp to oust him a year ago.
The governor said he talked to Mr. Mitchell again about a week ago, but it was clear Mr. Mitchell would not be swayed.
"I didn't try to talk him out of it this time because he had made up his mind. He seemed to me like a burden had lifted from his shoulders. He had a little cheer in his voice that I hadn't heard for a long time," the governor said.
Mr. Mitchell has complained in recent years that his position in the public spotlight has taken a great toll on his family.
In April, for example, he lashed out at reporters for stories about his son's business connections.
"You may not have me to pick on anymore in a few days," he told The Sun.
His outburst followed reports that his son used his name to pressure a state official on a business matter, and that the speaker had lobbied for a bill supported by his son's employer.
More than a year before that, Mr. Mitchell complained that his family went through "sheer hell" while he was being investigated by the state's special prosecutor. He was cleared of wrongdoing in the matter, which reportedly involved his private real estate business.
Those experiences diminished Mr. Mitchell's enthusiasm for publiclife, friends said.
"Politics has become much more difficult -- it's more time-consuming and threatening, in terms of family relationships," Senate President Miller said.
Mr. Mitchell's departure could throw the House of Delegates into turmoil if his lieutenants cannot keep control.
Some have agreed to a Mitchell-backed plan for Mr. Alexander to assume the job for one year only. If successful, Mr. Alexander would keep in place Mr. Mitchell's Democratic leadership team, which consists of the majority leader, committee chairmen and vice-chairmen and assorted minor functionaries.
Some of those people, including Mr. Alexander himself, received their jobs as political paybacks for supporting Mr. Mitchell during the attempted coup last year.
Mr. Alexander is not seeking re-election next year, so he would not pose any threat for the post.
"We intend to keep the leadership team together as much as possible and avoid any type of confrontation that would be divisive," Mr. Alexander said.
Several delegates who have had their eyes on the speaker's office say they will agree to support Mr. Alexander.
"I'm willing to agree to it if others agree to it," said Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D- Washington.
"We'd like to wait for next election and have an open contest for speaker at that point. This isn't the time for a real fight," Delegate Kopp said.
A possible opponent to the Alexander plan, Del. Casper R. Taylor,did not return repeated phone calls yesterday.
Mr. Taylor, the chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, has made no secret of his desire to be speaker one day.
One possible stumbling block to Mr. Alexander is the concern thattoo much power in the legislature would be concentrated in his home county of Prince George's, where Senate President Miller also lives.
The speaker and senate president have not hailed from the same jurisdiction since 1951, said Senate Historian Peter Kumpa.