Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes and members of the state Senate are at odds again. Once again, patronage is the issue. This time the question is: Who rules?

Since he became governor in 1979, Hughes has eschewed tradition where patronage is concerned, ignoring time-honored unwritten laws such as the one that says a senator rules in his own district. Now, members of the Senate have decided to fight Hughes on that question, albeit in a manner more symbolic than rebellious.

Their vehicle is the Senate's Executive Nominations Committee, long a rubber stamp for nominations sent down by the governor. This past week, for the first time in memory, the committee sent a name back to the governor, asking him to withdraw it because the appointee was a political enemy of the senator in her district.

Hughes appointments secretary Constance R. Beims, was caught off guard when the committee, at the request of freshman Sen. John N. Bambacus (R-Allegany), sent back the name of Karen Lancaster, whom Hughes had reappointed to the state Board of Election Laws, a relatively minor nonpolicy-making board. Lancaster is a longtime ally of former Sen. Edward J. Mason, whom Bambacus defeated last year in a bitter primary fight.

"I went to Connie Beims and told her that I could see no reason why a political opponent of mine should get this appointment," Bambacus said. "I am the senator in the 1st District now and the prerogative belongs with me. She gave me her speech about how the appointment is based on quality and said she would talk to the governor. Then, they sent the name down anyway."

Beims said the name was sent down because, in her view, Lancaster had done a good job in four years on the board. She said Friday she had not yet talked to Hughes about whether Lancaster's name will be withdrawn. The 19-member committee informed Beims in sending the name back that it would vote to reject Lancaster's name if it were resubmitted.

The change in the Senate's policy came about this year because of the appointment of Sen. Clarence Mitchell III (D-Baltimore) as committee chairman. Mitchell succeeded Sen. Margaret C. Schweinhaut (D-Montgomery), the longtime matriarch of the Senate when Sen. Melvin A. Steinberg offered the chairmanship to members of the black caucus as part of his deal with them that made him senate president.

"I knew the committee had been a rubber stamp for a lot of years and I wanted it made clear it would not be that under me," Mitchell said. "When I held an organizational meeting members of the committee were shocked. They had never been to one before."

Mitchell quickly put out the word to other senators that if an appointment did not please them, they should let him know. At the very least, he promised, he would delay a hearing on the appointment long enough to make the governor and his staff squirm.

When Hughes named Lorraine Sheehan as secretary of state, a move that outraged the Prince George's Senate delegation since Sheehan was an avowed enemy of the senator in her district, B.W. Mike Donovan, Mitchell offered to hold up the appointment. Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller, the leader of the Prince George's senators, declined the offer because, privately, he thought the appointment was a good one.

Two weeks later, when Hughes sent down the name of former Del. Torrey C. Brown as the new secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, Mitchell, as a courtesy to Sen. Julian L. Lapides (D-Baltimore), a political enemy of Brown, delayed the hearing on the nomination.

The Hughes people may not be happy with Mitchell's actions, but his fellow senators, who have always resented Hughes' apolitical style, love it. "I think it's a good thing," Miller said. "Cabinet appointments are one thing, patronage is another. And who says that patronage and quality are mutually exclusive. We don't think they are."

The fact that the senators are behind Mitchell was apparent last Wednesday when the committee voted unanimously to send Lancaster's name back to the governor.

Now, at loggerheads with Mitchell, a five-term senator, a traditional city politician, one of the state's first black legislators and a man who believes that to the victor go the spoils, Beims wasn't sure what the administration's next move would be.

"There's a new chairman on the committee and he's going to do what he thinks is best," she said. "But so are we. We're going to continue to evaluate each candidate on their merits and then make decisions."

Mitchell says that's fine. "But I've seen too many senators humiliated in the past to not do anything. I think when they realize I'm serious, they may not send some names down as quickly as they have in the past."