By Len Lazarick
Being governor today is a lot more difficult than it was when he had the job in the 1970s, as Marvin Mandel tells it.
But the government, at both federal and state levels, has also grown too large and taxes are too high. Those were some of the observations Mandel offered in a 90-minute interview two days after his 90th birthday last month, in the Annapolis law office where he said he still works five days a week.
Mandel’s milestone birthday is being celebrated Tuesday night at the University of Maryland College Park in a “roast” being emceed by Senate President Mike Miller. Among the roasters are former Gov. Bob Ehrlich and U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer – president of the Senate during Mandel’s tenure.
Serving as governor, a post Mandel held for 10 years, “is far more difficult today that it was 20 years ago,” Mandel said. “I think the legislature and the governor have done a pretty good job at keeping the state functioning, But you can’t keep raising taxes. You just can’t keep doing it.”
“We’ve reached a point where we have to reduce the size of government,” Mandel said. “I just think government is getting too big. I don’t think you should spend money you don’t have.”
When he entered the legislature in 1952, Mandel said, the budget was $250 million and today it is $32 billion.
“Nobody knew what a billion dollars was,” he said.
Mandel recalled that he didn’t raise “general” taxes during his tenure, but according to historian George Callcott, the budget under Mandel rose 180 percent – going up double-digits all but one year. That’s a rate of increase much higher than under Bob Ehrlich or Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Mandel is clearly closer personally and by political philosophy to Ehrlich than he is to O’Malley. Ehrlich wrote the foreword to Mandel’s just-published memoir, in which the Republican embraces the Democratic ex-governor as a friend and mentor.
But Mandel said he’s not supporting either candidate in this year’s rematch.
“I’m not getting involved,” Mandel said. “Bob and I are friends, and I’ve been friends with O’Malley.”
“I think it’s too soon to try to think who you would make a favorite this time,” Mandel said. “Knowing — because I’ve been in the office — the powers of an incumbent governor and what the incumbent governor can do for his benefit, it’s tough to overcome that. But at the same time, he’s an incumbent; there seems to be a mood in the country — not Democrat or Republican — opposing incumbency. Let’s change the government.”
“I think we’re fortunate to have two main candidates who both have experience, both have backgrounds in government, I think that’s so important,” the former governor said. “Someone with no experience — it takes them a whole term learning how to operate the government.”
Mandel was speaker of the House of Delegates in 1969 when the legislature chose him to succeed Republican Gov. Spiro Agnew, who had been elected as Richard Nixon’s vice president. There was no lieutenant governor at the time, a problem Mandel later fixed with a constitutional amendment.
Mandel is a throwback to an older brand of ethnic politics. Callcott said “sounded Maryland’s last hurrah of machine politics.” He and Gov. William Donald Schaefer both rose through the same Democratic organizations in Baltimore.
“Maryland is described as an overwhelmingly Democratic state; I think that’s exaggerated,” Mandel said. “Maryland is a strong Democratic state by registration, but that … voting record is not that strong.”
“If you have two candidates equally attractive, the Democrat is going to win. But if you have someone a little more attractive as a Republican, with a strong record, he has a chance to win. Maryland people are more selective.”
Mandel is proud of his accomplishments as governor: reforming the court system, reorganizing state government into a cabinet system, taking over public school construction, but his service ended in disgrace, when federal prosecutors were finally able in a third trial to convict him of mail fraud for aiding his close friends. After he left office, he spent 15 months in a federal prison in Florida, a sentence commuted by President Ronald Reagan. Eventually, the statute under which he was convicted was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mandel is still as unrepentant as he was when he released from prison.
“There was never any evidence of money changing hands. There was never any evidence that anybody paid anybody anything,” said Mandel, who said he had been warned that federal prosecutors would take him down. “I hadn’t done anything.”
Despite his age, Mandel said he has no plans to retire.
“I still have to make a living,” he said. “It’s a nice pension, but you can’t live on it.
“I’ll never stop working. What would I do if I retired? I enjoy what I’m doing. I enjoy being busy.”