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Western Maryland voters prove you can argue with success

December 02, 2002|by TIM ROWLAND

Knowing he had a weak case, legend has it that celebrated defense attorney Clearance Darrow once grabbed the longest cigar he could get his mitts on and slid a fine wire down its length.

When the prosecution stood for closing arguments, Darrow lit the stogie, took a puff, wedged it between index and middle fingers and calmly let it burn away. The ash grew to one, two, three inches, but because of the wire it defied gravity and never fell.

Someone in the jury box noticed. He nudged the guy next to him and nodded in the direction of the cigar. The prosecutor proceeded to nail down his ironclad case, but pretty soon no one in the jury box was paying him any attention - they were all too fixated on the cigar, waiting for the ash to fall.

This isn't the only tobacco-as-a-distraction incident I'm aware of. In the early '90s, some ninny was testifying before Del. Cas Taylor's Economic Matters Committee.

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Taylor stood about all he could stand, then reached for a fresh pack of cigarettes. About an inch from his open mike, he began tearing off the cellophane for several crinkly crackly minutes over the committee sound system. That done, he began thumping the pack on the back of his hand, which translated over the loudspeakers like a bass drum.

Still, the testimony droned on before Taylor pulled out a book of matches and struck one which, duly amplified, sounded like a gunshot. This coup de grace finally triggered the right mechanism in the tiny little brain of the witness, who understood his bill was going nowhere and mercifully shut his pie hole.

In my experience, Taylor never had an unkind or impolite word for a witness before his committee, but he had this way of getting his message across. Once, as a particularly bad bill was being promoted, he got up from his chairman's seat and began straightening paintings on the wall. During voting sessions, he would silently let committee members know how he felt about a proposed amendment by rubbing his forehead with the back of his hand, thumb discreetly turned down.

That was back in the day when the hometown voters were quite satisfied with Taylor, and if he had remained a committee chair and not moved up to Speaker, they might be still.

Western Marylanders have this curious habit of punishing success - see Bruce Poole, Barry Tuckwell, at al.

A voter who did not like Taylor's support of trigger locks, his heavy-handedness with race tracks and high schools, his elbow-rubbing with Annapolis power trusts, or the big recreation projects he brought home to Allegheny County, had ample and understandable reason to side with his very able challenger, LeRoy Myers.

Despite the vilification that went on in this election, Taylor in my view always had the interests of his people at heart. Trouble was, Taylor's idea of what was good for the people and the people's idea of what was good for the people began parting company several years ago.

Still, I don't think it is possible to truly understand politics without understanding Taylor, or someone like him - Clyde See in West Virginia, or Bud Shuster in Pennsylvania. Like politics itself, all these men have their flaws. They work the system, they plow their hands into a dirty business and sometimes that dirt doesn't wash off. But in the end, they care a goodly amount more for the people they serve than they are ever given credit for. Often they leave the battle scarred and shamed, but they fought it nonetheless, and for that we should be glad.

When he pushed Maryland health care reform forward against all odds - recognizing an impending crisis years before most politicians - Taylor was criticized for working tooth-and-jowl with the seamier sides of the insurance, medical and lawyer lobbies. But the truth was, the legislation was never going anywhere without some degree of corporate support. And the greater truth was, when it came time to put the people's interests ahead of business interests, Taylor played the lobbyists like a flute.

These lobbyists were always buzzing about his committee like a swarm of locusts, but on a crucial vote Taylor reportedly had his lieutenants schedule a bill for hearing in another committee that would have required all lobbyists to have their heads chopped off, or something like that. Naturally, the swarm moved to the committee room down the hall to fight the measure, leaving Taylor's committee to vote in peace.

He took care of his committee like that, and they loved him for it. Once in the waning days of the session he pulled his people off the House floor to address "a Southern Maryland problem." That Southern Maryland problem turned out to be a humongous, St. Mary's County ham. Later that long, exhausting day he took the floor to pull them out again because "we're still working on that Southern Maryland problem."

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