I get more damn plaques," crowed State Sen. Roy N. Staten. "This has been a pretty good year for 'em. Church plaques. Citizens plaques. The teachers gave me the 'White Hat' award. . . I put 'em up for awhile, move 'em around and put up new ones."
When Staten began collecting awards a few years ago, he was on top of the political heap. He was majority leader of the Maryland Senate and state Democratic Party chairman. He was the chief spokesman and spearcarrier in the Senate for then-Gov. Marvin Mandel.
He helped push through Mandel's programs with hard work and fancy footwork. He delivered votes on key issues. He obtained judgeships for friends and pork barrel projects for his East Baltimore County district. He was one of Annapolis' power elite.
Today, the 64-year-old senator from Dundalk is known as a politician with little left but his honorary plaques. His mentor, Mandel, was suspended from office last fall after his conviction on federal corruption charges. His "Old Guard' brand of politics is considered out of tune with the current General Assembly.
He remains majority leader and party chairman in name only, his colleagues say, and has lost control of the issues. This is his 25th legislative session in Annapolis, and some law makers call it "Staten's last hurrah."
"He's like an old Pancho Villa and somebody's taken the ammunition out of his gun," said Sen. Victor L. Crawford (D. Montgomery). "It's really sad. For years he was a very powerful guy around here. But people aren't listening to him anymore."
"Roy's been on a general losing trend in recent years," said House Majority Leader John S. Arnick, who comes from Staten's district. "There's an underlying feeling down here that Roy's passing out." That feeling undoubtedly has contributed to Arnick's decision to challenge Staten for the Senate seat -- an unthinkable idea and dangerous until now.
The clearest signs of Staten's low standing appear on the Senate floor where he once reigned. He is regularly challenged when explaining bills. He is excluded from some leadership strategy sessions. Other senators have assumed his job of shepherding bills.
Two weeks ago, when an anti-subway bill that had been killed in Staten's committee was successfully petitioned to the floor, he was blamed. A good majority leader, critics said, would have delayed a vote until he had enough support to stop the petition.
A paunchy man whose flat forehead, jowls and black rimmed glasses give him an owl-like appearance, Staten often stumbles through his committee reports on the Senate floor. When questioned by fellow senators, he is known to lose his temper and get flustered.
"Roy doesn't have anywhere near the clout he used to have or should have," said Sen. Jerome F. Connell, Sr. (D. Anne Arundel). "He can't swing THE Senate into a party call the way a majority leader should be able to. He can't even count votes right."
Staten, who retired four years ago as "chief of time" for Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant, flatly rejects the criticism, saying he is as fit as ever to handle his job. He said he may even run for a fourth Senate term in the election this fall.
"I think you should get out of politics when the system is working on you, when you can't live up to change," he said. "It hasn't started working on me yet. I feel I have as much ability or more to get things don around here as I've ever had."
A few older members of the Senate do say they consider Staten as effective as ever. Sen. Home White Jr. (D. Eastern Shore) said his old colleague "may not have charismatic appeal, but when he's assigned a job, he does a damn good job. He knows how to work around the edges."
Staten is one of the last of his breed in Annapolis. He is an unvarnished organization stalwart who started his career at the precint level. In his school of politics, above all else, loyalty to party and party leader is the mark of a good politician.
His devotion to Mandel accounted for much of Staten's power in the Senate. He was known as "the governor's man," the trusted friend who dutifully carried Mandel's messages and did his bidding. He had the governor's ear.
As Mandel's legal troubles worsened, Staten's clout diminished. His influence first started slipping after the Mandel indictment in late 1975, and hit rock bottom after the governor was convicted on political corruption charges last summer and forced out of office.
"Those senators who were anxious to maintain a good standing with the governor may have been intimidated by Roy," said Sen. Rosalie S. Abrams (D. Baltimore). "That's all gone now with Mandel out. Roy's power is perceptively weaker."
Staten's testimony as a defense witness at the Mandel trial resulted in several immediate setbacks for him. In closing arguments, a federal prosecutor accused him of lying under oath, which he denies.
The Baltimore Democratic Party chairman urged Staten to step down as head of the state party, saying Maryland Democrats "should be led by a chairman whose integrity has not been questioned or discredited and by a chairman with no prearranged loyalties."
Acting Gov. Blair Lee III passed over Staten for a $44,000-a-year Cabinet job that had been promised to him by Mandel. Lee acknowledged at the time that the adverse publicity resulting from Staten's disputed testimony was a factor in his decision.
The series of blows left Staten "in a daze," according to one of his oldest friends here. "He'll come to a meeting," the friend said, "and never take off his coat. We'll be talking about something really heavy and he'll start talking about old Annapolis."
Until recent years, Staten was one of the big winners in Maryland politics. HE had moved along a smooth path to the top since entering politics in the early 1950s as a precinct worker for Baltimore County political boss Michael J. (Iron Mike) Birmingham.
He started representing his district of steelmill workers in 1953 when Birmingham picked him to fill a vacancy in the House of Delegates. As the only state legislator from his heavy industrial district at the time, he was very powerful.
As a member and later chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Staten became one of the legislature's leading experts on fiscal matters and pension systems. After the state's legislative districts were reapportioned. he was elected in 1966 as the first senator from Dundalk.
In his heyday, Staten dazzled his colleagues with parliamentary skill and a firm grasp of the issues. His rich baritone voice, tinged with a slight Southern accent from his native Virginia, turned heads in the House and Senate galleries and won the affection of his colleagues.
He was Dundalk's political boss and an integral part of the old Democratic machine in Baltimore County, which monopolized county and state jobs and divided political spoils among its chieftains. He was the lone survivor when the machine collapsed in the 1974 election.
When the Senate presideny became vacant in 1975, he vied for the post with Steny H. Hoyer, a young senator from PRince George's County. In a deal engineered by Mandel, Hoyer became Senate president and Staten became majority leader, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committeeand state party chief.
His first year as majority leader was successful by both measures. He worked well with the Senate leadership. Shuttling back and forth from the governor's mansion to the Senate, he helped Mandel, who was still at the peak of his power, push his programs through the legislature.
A year later, the system that had taken Staten to the top began to betray him. He encountered resistance from younger members of the Senate who objected to his blanket allegiance to Mandel, who was then under indictment. Some senators were looking for a more independent role for themselves.
When the Senate initially rose in opposition to Mandel's proposals for a sales tax increase last year and construction of the Baltimore subway in 1976, other Senate leaders worked out the compromises and overcame the resistance. The majority leader remained in the background.
"It's just a different atmosphere of politics today," said Sen. Harry J. McGuirk (D-Baltimore), whom most senators consider the de facto majority leader. "Roy is such a devoted loyalist that he's loyal to a form of politics that is waning, the original type of blind obedience."
"He's out of the past and he's never come into the present," said Sen. John C. Coolahan (D-Baltimore County). "Roy is a politician of 20 years ago, when the top dog (governor) said you've got to do it a certain way. The legislature has changed. Most of us don't kowtow to leadership."
Even some of Staten's supporters concede that he has slipped in recent years. They say he should hang up his political spurs after this session and spare himself; a bruising re-election fight and a likely move to depose him as majority leader if he wins re-election.
Staten admits that the legislature "does not hold the excitement for me that it used to." He misses Mandel and the rough-and-tumble days of his prime.But he feels he still has much to offer the Senate as he rounds out a quarter-century of service. He does not want to be thought of in the past tense.
"I never think of myself as an elder statesman," he said, "because a statesman is a dead politician."