They first met nearly a year ago in a crowded legislative hearing chamber in Annapolis, the veteran Democratic committee chairman and the upstart Republican freshman, both of democracy-loving Montgomery County.
The young delegate, as the news accounts later told it, was pushing a common man's bill to strip away the tax breaks of Montgomery's venerable country clubs; the senator, a country club member, was defending the county's establishment.
Laurence Levitan, the senator, won the debate that day last January, and that could have ended his confrontation with Luiz Simmons, the delegate. As it turned out, though, it was just the beginning of what has become one of the liveliest ongoing political feuds in the Maryland legislature, a scrap that is pitting two of the state's most familiar political styles against each other and foreshadowing, perhaps, some of the battles the county will see in the 1982 elections.
In the last 11 months, Levitan and Simmons have gone out of their way to engage each other in ideological and personal skirmishing -- and to get attention for the steamy results. They have jousted over campaign financing on the state Senate floor, and have sought each other out for debates on radio programs that quickly turned nasty. They have hurled epithets and innuendo at each other across legislative corridors, television screens, and newspaper pages.
Tuesday night, at a Montgomery senator's caucus, they met again over the issue that started it all: tax breaks for country clubs. And Levitan, to no one's surprise, won again. The senators voted 5 to 2 to kill Simmons' bill eliminating tax breaks for country clubs for the second straight year, then passed by 6 to 1 a bill introduced by Levitan as an alternative that Simmons had roundly denounced.
"This has taken on a kind of macho life of its own," said Sen. Howard Denis, a Republican who voted against Simmons' bill, of the two-man debate over the clubs. "It's not that logical; it's personality and chemistry and some fundamental differences, with one-upmanship at every stage."
"Clearly," Simmons said yesterday, "there's an axis here, and I'm on one end and Larry's on the other. And I imagine this sort of argument will continue for a couple of more years, until we both run for election."
"He does get me excited," says Levitan of Simmons. "I really don't like the style of politics he has played. Some of the bills he puts in really irritate me."
This is a clash of classic legislative stereotypes in many ways, of political styles that have been in conflict for generations in statehouse hallways. "They're archetypes," says Denis. "And they're in danger of becoming caricatures."
On one side is Levitan, 47, ruddy-faced, and with a touch of old Maryland's rural slur in his voice, a part-time legislator in the true sense who lives in stylish Potomac, belongs to a contry club that reportedly charges $20,000 for initiation alone, and takes time from his lucrative law practice in real estate and development to serve in Annapolis as a kind of super-charged, outside hobby.
Elected to the Senate in 1974, Levitan is the kind of hard-minded, quiet, play-by-the-rules politician who quickly earns respect in Annapolis, and for the last two years he has enjoyed an influential position in the Senate leadership as chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. He is proud of his ability to get things done quietly.
Then there is Simmons, 31, of more middle-class Silver Spring, a Republican liberal in a conservative Democrat-dominated assembly, who practices law but lives for politics and the blossoming career he has thus far found in it. At once ambitious and explosively impatient, he has neither the motive nor the character to methodically work his way through Levitan's Democratic hierarchy of legislative power, so instead he has attempted to use public relations and his own naked, aggressive energy to gain the attention he hopes might catapult him to higher office in 1982.
In its own way, Simmons' style has been as effective as Levitan's. For a first-term Montgomery County delegate, he has received an abundance of coverage, and already if frequently mentioned by county Republicans as a likely challenger to County Executive Charles Gilchrist or 8th District Rep. Michael Barnes in 1982.
Nowhere has this clash of insider and outsider, politics and ideology been more dramatic than in the country club debate, a delicate issue where the positions of both men tend to make their less charged colleagues nervous. Twice in two years, Simmons has succeeded in stirring a storm of publicity and comment on his proposal to charge 19 county country clubs higher property tax rates -- which would cost them $1.3 million -- and twice he has made an issue of Levitan's own membership in the Woodmont Country Club and what Simmons calls his "championing of real estate special intersts."
Each time, Levitan has used his practical legislative skills and leadership position to bury the bill, accepting the conflict-of-interest charges and occasional editorial attacks with apparent equanimity, and all the while arguing that Simmons' bill would cause the clubs to sell out and sacrifice precious county "open space" to unwelcome new development.
In this month's country club clash, both Levitan and Simmons produced supportive letters from authoritative figures that the other hinted were distorted or planted. Each delivered lengthy statements challenging the statistics and motives of the other, and repeated them again and again on radio call-in shows and in media interviews.
Said Levitan of Simmons: "He's very slick, the kind of opportunist who's always running for the next higher office instead of taking care of the one he's in." Levitan, said Simmons, is "a classic defender of the status quo who sees no difference between the public interest and private special interests" and "the thing that's depressing to me is to imagine a whole delegation composed of Levitans."
Both men, predictably, were left believing that they had won the battle. "He's obviously decided that he's going to show me that this is the system and this is the way it works -- that no matter what I do and what public opinion is he's going to call the shots," says Simmons of Levitan. "The question if how the voters will react to it."
"You know who I think this bill is going to hurt -- I think it's going to hurt Lu Simmons," Levitan says. "People are starting to see that he's using this as a political opportunist, and they don't like that."