Gov. Harry Hughes' patronage secretary had no sooner set down her green Gucci bag than her phone began ringing. The callers, members of the state senate, were praising the coveted patronage appointments that Constance Beims had just delivered to the Senate floor.

"Hi Connie. Just called to say thanks," said Sen. Arthur Dorman (D-Prince George's), expressing a typical reaction to Maryland's ritual "Green Bag" ceremony -- so called because the names are, by ritual, sent to the Senate in a green bag, although never before in a chartreuse Gucci.

"I used a Gucci to show that we pick good names," Beims quipped, who was pleasantly startled by the positive reception to the often controversial distribution of political plums.

The comment was double-edged, because Hughes' interpretation of "good names" for political appointments often has not jibed with that of most senators. The governor, who styles himself a political outsider, has disbanded the old system in which senators held sway over hundreds of sought-after state jobs.

Instead of currying favor with their senators, Beims said seekers of patronage jobs must submit resumes and be screened on the basis of merit and geographical distribution, a system that has alienated many legislators and party regulars. (The senators hissed and booed in previous years when Hughes sent the Green Bag to the Senate floor.)

Today's appointments still angered certain powerful senators, whose recommendations for key jobs were bypassed. But for the first time, several Hughes critics publicly complimented the governor for "quality, real quality," as Sen. Victor Cushwa (D-Washington County) put it -- a sign that Hughes' unconventional patronage system has won some grudging acceptance.

The appointments that drew the most praise included: Baltimorean Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., who was head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People during the Civil Rights movement, named to the University of Maryland Board of Regents; and Frank O. Heintz, a former legislator and director of the state unemployment compensation program, as chairman of the Public Service Commission.

But there also were indications that Hughes added some election-year political savvy to this year's green bag.

For example, Prince George's, the state's most populous county, has a solidly Democratic General Assembly delegation whose members regularly remind Hughes they could help him considerably in this year's election and could provide key votes for his legislative initiatives.

And today, its delegation was delighted to find that both of its recommendations to the board of trustees of the county's community college were appointed -- the reason for Dorman's thank-you call -- and that harness racing board chairman Ben Schwartz, whom Hughes had been expected to dump, was reappointed.

Still, the reaction of many party regulars to Hughes' appointment process remains tepid. Under past governors, particularly Marvin Mandel, political organizations controlled large numbers of patronage jobs in their regions and gained clout from having the power to parcel them out to the faithful. Some Democratic Party leaders say Hughes' apolitical approach has weakened the party. "He even appoints Republicans!" one party leader grumbled.

Many senators contend that Hughes' approach is as political as the old style, just in different ways. They say that because Hughes was opposed by all the established political organizations in 1978, he is simply returning the rebuff, while rewarding the "outsiders" who elected him. In addition to spreading out the geographical distribution of the state's 1,500 annual patronage appointments, Hughes has also increased the representation of blacks (from 18 to 28 percent) and women (from 19 to 29 percent).

The absence of one name from Hughes' fourth green bag was viewed as a telling symbol of the change. Baltimore attorney Michael Silver, a member of Mandel's patronage staff in the heyday of the old system, had secured a patronage job as property tax assessment appeals board administrator during his last days in the statehouse in 1976. His term expires in July, and to no one's surprise, Hughes did not reappoint him.