'Nice-guy' Taylor scores in first term as speaker

He is, in his quiet, proper way, like a character out of Fitzgerald, a man who dreamed winter dreams as he tended bar in Western Maryland, then headed east to make those dreams come true.

Today, at 59, Casper R. Taylor Jr. is where he wants to be, in Annapolis, roaming the podium before the other 140 members of the House of Delegates, a doleful-looking penguin happily running the show.


With this year's 90-day General Assembly session ending at midnight today, Mr. Taylor finds himself on the verge of completing, by most accounts, an impressive debut as speaker of the House.

The plaudits have come from every direction, even from Republicans such as Howard County's Martin G. Madden, who keeps collaring reporters to relate some new tale of subtle Taylor graciousness.


It's no surprise he's a hit with his colleagues. His "let's-be-friends" approach to leadership and nice-guy image are a welcome relief to people used to the strong-arm tactics of his predecessor.

Of course, not everyone is enthralled. Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the House GOP leader, says Mr. Taylor has displayed little real leadership.

"I think Cas' goal this year has been to make the trains run on time and keep people happy -- the Democrats -- in order to get re-elected speaker next year," said Ms. Sauerbrey of Baltimore County.

Mr. Taylor has done more than make friends. In perhaps the defining event of the session, he stitched together an agreement that may well have kept the General Assembly from spinning out of control.

At issue were football stadiums, the one Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke wants to build in Laurel and the one Gov. William Donald Schaefer wants for Baltimore, if he can ever find a team to use it.

Tensions built between the two old warhorses and their legislative champions in the first part of the session. A younger warhorse, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., was unhappy, too.

Mr. Taylor brought the sides together, getting their signatures on a piece of paper that gave something to everyone while skillfully papering over differences, thus preventing a rancorous, divisive session.

For his efforts, he won fresh kudos, along with a commitment from Mr. Cooke to make Frostburg State University, in Mr. Taylor's Allegany County, the Redskins' summer home.


"I got to where I wanted to be," Mr. Taylor said of his diplomatic efforts. "Without being trite, I like to think I did it my way."

Not long after, Mr. Miller, who had clashed frequently with the previous speaker, R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., said, "Cas Taylor is a breath of fresh air. He's like a letter from home."

Years earlier, the idea that the son of a small town barkeep might become the first speaker from Western Maryland in 100 years was unlikely, a small-town fantasy.

But not unthinkable, because Cas Taylor even as a child thought in epic terms, and his parents scrimped to put him through college.

Attended Notre Dame

And not the local community college, either, but the University of Notre Dame, the intellectual and religious wellspring for Roman Catholic youth in America.


At the Indiana college, he rose to president of the Academy of Political Science, the prestigious student political club, rubbing shoulders with visiting dignitaries, such as then U.S. Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey.

His degree in his pocket, he trudged back to Cumberland, his hometown, a factory community nestled in the rugged mountains of Western Maryland. He went into business with his father, married his high school sweetheart, Mary "Polly" Young, and started a family.

He told his father, Casper Sr., of his interest in politics. Don't do it, the elder Taylor told his son, business and politics don't mix. But his mother, Zelma, sweet and introverted, cheered him on.

He joined local community groups, the Jaycees, the Elks, the Dapper Dan Club, rising within their ranks, biding his time.

The opening came in 1974. Though much of Western Maryland is Republican, the legislature created a single delegate district with a Democratic majority after the Supreme Court's landmark one-man, one-vote ruling. Mr. Taylor ran and won.

He was slimmer and more publicly playful when he came to Annapolis in 1975. He had more hair, too, or so it seemed, until you saw a furry spider flying at you in a bar and spied Mr. Taylor laughing his bald head off.


He gave up the toupee a few years back. He cut down on the time in local Annapolis bistros as well. Soon he was on the leadership ladder. In 1978, he was named vice chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, and nine years later, its chairman.

He made the committee his own. Deeply religious, he combined the qualities of a parish priest with those of a sympathetic bartender, offering a willing ear, a shoulder to lean on, occasional absolution to fellow members, cementing relationships by revealing intimate bits of himself.

He grew close to his committee members and, critics say, to the lobbyists who hung around them. One of the few criticisms of Mr. Taylor was that he was too cozy with lobbyists.

Economic Matters had a reputation for listening more carefully to business than consumers. But when someone came from an economically depressed region, like Mr. Taylor did, those distinctions became lost. From his perspective, Maryland won when business won.

He put that philosophy into practice, cultivating a friendship with Governor Schaefer that has reaped economic benefits for the folks back home. Those benefits included state help promoting tourism and putting a new prison in Allegany, bringing welcome jobs.

"Casper brings home the bacon in the large-size packages," said Del. Kevin Kelly, a fellow Cumberland Democrat.


His brightest achievement, however, came last year on an issue that required him to maneuver between competing business interests in order to help, ultimately, consumers. He guided to passage a landmark health care reform act. The law aims to make health insurance more available to employees of small companies, many of whom are uninsured.

His stock was riding high last November, when then-Speaker Mitchell shocked his colleagues by announcing that he was retiring from politics. Finally, Mr. Taylor had the chance to become speaker -- one of the three most powerful jobs in state government.

But there was a hitch. A successor to Mr. Mitchell had all but been anointed by the inner circle, and he was Del. Gary R. Alexander of Prince George's County.

Mr. Taylor put on a full court press. His friend the governor weighed in on his behalf. His committee members became a finely tuned political machine, calling friends and lining up votes.

They focused on rural and suburban lawmakers tired of warming the bench for the Big Three: Baltimore and Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Mr. Taylor, his backer said, would let everyone play.

Within 24 hours, he was speaker. "My immediate goal was to be accepted by, and win the confidence of, my members," he later said. "I have a very strong desire to be accepted or affirmed."


Got more schools money

During his inaugural session, he is credited with persuading the governor to provide more money for schools and other programs and, in return, pushing Mr. Schaefer's cigarette tax increase through the House.

Throughout, he displayed a style quite different from that of his predecessor, Mr. Mitchell.

"Clay was like a field marshal. He'd give the directions and say, 'Get it done,' and it got done, even if people got their knuckles rapped. Cas is much more the deal-maker, the massager, the guy who seeks consensus," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, who lost his job as majority leader when Mr. Taylor took over.

"But I would imagine . . . there has got to come a time when he has to lay down the law too and crack the whip. I imagine that has to be hard for him."

That time may not be too far ahead. Delegates already have pushed the rules of order to their limits, with minirevolts against their leaders led by the women's caucus and others. Mr. Taylor says he wants to reassert control but can't this year. "I have no hammer as a speaker at the end of the term."


Still, how can a man who craves affirmation, indeed, the affection, of his colleagues, impose his will on them without making enemies? What happens when having a vision for the state means taking people in directions they don't want to go?

Mr. Taylor says he will use his quiet ways and personality, convincing others that divisiveness need not be permanent or personal. "I think you can be visionary and I think you can get from A to B by using your own personality."

Governor Schaefer believes his friend from Cumberland will succeed. "You're not looking at a pantywaist. In coming years, anyone who's an obstructionist, who's not doing the right thing, he will take care of them," he says.

"If [he had become speaker] last year, he'd have been a candidate for governor this year."