CAMBRIDGE -- Just because he's leaving public life when the General Assembly recesses in April doesn't mean Sen. Frederick C. Malkus Jr. plans to fade into the mist hanging over his Dorchester County wetlands.
The white-haired lawmaker says he will write memoirs of the 48 consecutive years he has spent in the General Assembly -- a record tenure in Maryland and a period during which there were eight governors and an increase in the annual state budget from $60 million to more than $12 billion.
A Roosevelt Democrat when he first was elected to the House of Delegates in 1946, Mr. Malkus was dubbed "Muskrat" because of his fondness for trapping and dining on the furry marsh animal.
Since 1952, he has represented Eastern Shore counties in the Senate, where his hair color and his deft use of parliamentary rules to push his rural conservative agenda earned him the nickname "Silver Fox."
At the reflective age of 80, Mr. Malkus is the first to admit that his pace is slowing.
He can't trap as he once did. He keeps his walks brief to avoid shortness of breath. And he has trouble hearing.
"Could win again"
"When you get to be my age, you're not as good as you were," he said. "I don't care what some of these people say. You're not as sharp as you were. I think I could win again, but I'm not going to put that issue to question."
Retiring from elected office, he said, will leave him with the time and energy he needs to write his book.
"I'm not doing it for the money," he said during an interview in his law office in downtown Cambridge, where he still handles minor civil cases. "I'm doing it maybe for history. I can tell about the legislature over that period better than anybody else."
The senator is coy about much of what he will write, but he said he will rate the men who have held the state's highest office while he was in Annapolis.
At the top of his list is William Preston Lane, who was sworn in as governor when Mr. Malkus joined the legislature in 1947.
"He was a courageous governor," said the senator, who voted for Mr. Lane's controversial sales tax -- the first for Maryland consumers. "He came into the governorship when nothing had been done in the state except for the war effort."
Mr. Malkus credited Mr. Lane, whose tax measure later led to his defeat, with providing Maryland with the money to build roads and improve education and health.
After Mr. Lane, J. Millard Tawes and Marvin Mandel rank highest on Mr. Malkus' list of the best governors in the past five decades.
Mr. Tawes was a fellow legislator from the Eastern Shore. Mr. Mandel, who did not always share Mr. Malkus' conservative views, was a hunting enthusiast who sometimes came to the senator's farm to hunt waterfowl.
And how does he appraise the current governor, William Donald Schaefer? He won't say, although the two men have been known to describe each other privately in uncomplimentary terms.
The only thing the papers ever quoted me as saying about the governor was that he's an unusual man," Mr. Malkus said. "And no jury will convict me on that."
The senator said he has mixed feelings about the efficiency of the modern state legislature and the power wielded by the people who work with the General Assembly.
"The biggest difference between now and 48 years ago is the part the actual elected official played," he said. "There isn't any question but that the nonelected officials that are associated with the legislature are playing a much greater part."
Staffs have grown
When he was chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in the 1960s, he said, only two staff members were assigned to work with him and the other senators. Now, he said, committee chairmen have two lawyers and a half-dozen other employees to help them.
"In those days, the chairman stood on the floor of the Senate and explained a bill," he said. "At the present time, the chairman stands up and reads what the bill does, which is prepared by the committee's two attorneys. So often now, the philosophy of the bureaucrat replaces the philosophy of the elected official."
On the other hand, Mr. Malkus said, today's politicians are better prepared to deal with complex issues facing them in committee and on the floor. Stacks of reports and analyses of bills await legislators each day, he said, and there are
fewer chances for even seasoned lawmakers to pull political tricks with legislation.
He said that when he joined the General Assembly, freshman lawmakers often knew no more about what was going on during floor sessions than spectators seated in the galleries.
"It was difficult," he said. "You had a book with the bills inside, but you never knew when the bills were coming up until you sat in your seat and they were read across the desk."
During a particularly confusing day in the House, he said, cheeky lawmakers managed to transform an education bill for a Western Shore county into a gambling bill for Ocean City without the knowledge of the resort's representative.
Mr. Malkus was born in Baltimore but raised from an early age on the Eastern Shore. He said he was a soldier in the U.S. 1st Army in Belgium when he started thinking about a political career.
"I was sitting in an apple orchard voting for President Roosevelt on an absentee ballot," he said. "It was raining like the devil. I came to the conclusion that if I ever got out of this mess, I was going to get into politics."
A few months after he left the Army in 1946, he filed for the Dorchester seat in the House and won. He has won every race for the General Assembly since, although he lost a special election to Congress against Republican Robert E. Bauman in 1973.
"That really hurt him -- for about two weeks," said Maggie Malkus, the senator's wife of 36 years.
Mrs. Malkus, who is 17 years younger than her husband and married him when he was 45, said he seldom lets problems bother him. "He can handle things pretty well," she said. "He can fall asleep five minutes after an argument while I stay up for a couple hours."
One of the senator's greatest political disappointments came in 1982 in a power struggle for the Senate leadership. Mr. Malkus backed incumbent Senate President James Clark Jr. against then-Sen. Melvin A. "Mickey" Steinberg.
Lost his power
Mr. Clark's forces lost and Mr. Steinberg replaced most of the committee leaders. Mr. Malkus lost his position as vice chairman of the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee. He held on to his ceremonial title as Senate president pro tem, but he never regained the power he once had.
He said that after 1982, he decided to focus on the needs of his Eastern Shore constituents. "I did not want to be a state senator," he said. "I wanted to be a county senator."
Voters apparently liked what they saw, because they kept re-electing him -- a record he attributes to a simple political axiom:
"The elected official should bear out the philosophy of the people he represents. That's what I have done and that's the reason I have been elected over these years.
"I am basically conservative and so is the area I represent. A lot of things have been used against me in my elections, but my basic conservative philosophy has never been questioned."
Despite his early years as a New Deal Democrat, Mr. Malkus' political positions made some people wonder about the appropriate political party for him.
"I've asked him to change his party affiliation," said Richard F. Colburn, a Republican who once represented part of Dorchester County in the House and is now seeking Mr. Malkus' Senate seat. "He said he wouldn't. He said he's still an FDR Democrat."
Perhaps the most sensitive spot in Mr. Malkus' career is his record -- or lack of record -- on civil rights.
"I didn't see him go to bat for these causes," said Lemuel Chester, a black activist during the 1960s racial turmoil in Cambridge and now a Dorchester County commissioner. "Fred Malkus didn't go out of his way to torpedo civil rights, but he lost a lot of credibility with us."
But relations between Dorchester's minority community and their state senator improved, said Mr. Chester, who gave Mr. Malkus credit for the appointments of blacks to some local commissions. "He became accessible," he said, "and as long as it wasn't radical, I could talk to him about civil rights issues."
Mr. Malkus said he questions whether government can be effective in improving race relations.
A matter of the heart
"My position on race has always been the same," he said. "This whole subject matter can be settled only through the hearts of the people. Putting it in the books doesn't do the job."
The senator said he is most proud of his fight in the legislature to defend what he sees as unnecessary government intrusion upon the rights of property owners. And although he often is seen as a thorn in the side of environmentalists, he said he cares about the Dorchester marshes and wildlife.
For instance, he said, he opposes the use of chemical spray to combat the voracious mosquitoes that appear in the summer on the Eastern Shore.
"Most of the people who've lived here a long while are willing to continue living with them," he said. "The people who gripe the most about the mosquitoes are the newcomers. When you take away the mosquito, you take away the food that young ducks have to eat."
Mr. Malkus said he could have entered retirement with a hefty pension from a court bench. Years ago, he said, a governor offered him a judgeship, but he turned it down because he felt more comfortable in the legislature.
"I've never been a great student of the law anyway," he said. "You understand, that to get elected as many times as I have been, you don't have a hell of a lot of time to get real serious about other things. I've sacrificed a real good law practice for an average law practice because politics has always come first. That's what my wife has accused me of to this day: I put politics first. Maybe it's because I liked it."