The formal resignation last week of state Del. Van T. Mitchell (D-Charles) to take a job in the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) opened the floodgates to speculation among local Democrats about who will be his replacement and the potential fallout in other levels of government.
On Thursday, Mitchell tendered his resignation in the House of Delegates to accept the position of deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, where he said he will start tomorrow. The 12-member Charles County Democratic Central Committee now has to fill the vacancy.
Among the potential candidates are Charles County Board of Commissioners President Murray D. Levy (D-At Large), former delegate Samuel C. "Buddy" Linton and Charles County fiscal services Director Richard Winkler.
Levy, 59, said he had been considering a run for delegate in 2006, when his fifth term as a commissioner, and third as president of the board, ends. But with Mitchell's departure, his timeline accelerated.
"My wife and I talked about it and said: 'Here it is. It's crunch time,' " he said. "I'm ready for a new challenge. I don't want to just hang on. I've given this job all I have, and it's time for some fresh energy."
Levy's 33 years of experience in county government includes positions as the county's first director of finance and first director of public works. He has also spent 18 years as the county's legislative representative in Annapolis with the Maryland Association of Counties. He said he is considered "a fiscal expert around the state" and is familiar with the political personalities in state government.
"I wouldn't say I'm on a first-name basis with all of them, but I certainly have had a lot of exposure to them and have worked with them, and they know a little about me," he said. "I don't think anybody has quite my combination of experience and electoral record -- five straight."
Some local officials say Linton, an 81-year-old former delegate from Nanjemoy who served for a combined 23 years in the General Assembly in three different stints, would be a more seasoned replacement for Mitchell. Those observers also note that Linton's selection would not cause a disruption on the board of commissioners.
"[Linton] has been there before, and he knows the system . . . and [the position] is only for two years," said Del. John F. Wood Jr. (D), whose St. Mary's-based district also includes a small piece of Charles County. "If you interrupt the county commissioners by taking somebody out of there . . . that doesn't help the commissioners."
Winkler, 63, of La Plata, said the delegate opening was a "terrific opportunity" that "came as a little bit of a surprise." He said his experience as the county's chief financial officer for 25 years, his past testimony in Annapolis on several issues and his preparation of fiscal impact analyses for all county legislation would serve him well in the General Assembly.
"I have a very clear understanding of how the system works in Annapolis, and I feel I have a lot to offer," he said.
Several members of the Charles County Democratic Central Committee said they were looking for a candidate who could serve effectively from the start but also had a strong chance of winning the delegate seat in the 2006 election.
"What's best for the county is to look at someone who is going to be there for the long run, someone who can learn quickly if they don't already know and somebody who can represent us well in Annapolis," said Edith J. Patterson, the chairwoman of the committee.
Some local Democrats said a "dark horse" candidate might be the best solution because of Linton's advanced age and the potential disruption caused by Levy's departure from the commissioners mid-term, especially since there is potential for another change on the county's top elected body. Del. W. Louis Hennessy (R-Charles) said he is pursuing an opening for Charles County District Court judge, and some consider Commissioner W. Daniel Mayer (R-La Plata) as a likely replacement if Hennessy vacates his seat in Annapolis.
"Should Levy be elevated to the position of delegate . . . it would leave Charles County in a quandary, considering the Republicans are also playing musical chairs," said Frank H. Lancaster of Cobb Island, president of the 4th & 5th [Districts] Democratic Club of Charles County. "It's a damn difficult situation when you pull the chairman of the county commissioners out of the slot, especially one as knowledgeable as ours."
Levy noted that each year there is a 50 percent to 60 percent turnover at the county commissioner level statewide.
"The thought of losing two commissioners is somewhat new [in Charles], it hasn't happened for a while, but in other jurisdictions," it's normal, Levy said. "I don't feel [stability] is a real solid criteria for making these kinds of decisions. You want to put the best people in there."
If Levy is picked to succeed Mitchell, then the Central Committee would repeat the process to replace Levy for the remainder of his commissioner term. Democrats mentioned Commissioner Wayne Cooper (D-White Plains) as a potential replacement. Cooper said if the Central Committee selected him to replace Levy he would "gladly serve" as commissioners president.
Patterson, 58, of Pomfret, said she is also interested in becoming a county commissioner if a vacancy opened up. If chosen, she would be the first African American commissioner in the county's history, and the move would come at a time when the African American population in Charles is growing rapidly.
"I know people will say we need an African American and that's true, but also one that's qualified and capable," she said. But she added that it was premature to discuss her political future before the delegate seat had been filled because she did not want "to feel self-serving in my post" as Central Committee chairwoman.
"It's a very thin line that I'm walking," she said.
The Central Committee plans to meet Tuesday to discuss the process of filling the delegate seat. Committee members said they would interview candidates once all the applications had been submitted and then vote on a replacement, whose name would then be submitted to the governor for formal appointment.
"You can't stop change," said Mayer. "Change is inevitable."