The Maryland House of Delegates today delivered the final blow in this state to the proposed D.C. voting rights amendment. The vote ended for this year a bitter struggle that included an unsuccessful long distance telephone appeal by Muhammad Ali who failed to round up the single vote needed by the amendment's supporters.
The final vote -- a 70-to-70 tie that left sponsors one short of the constitutional majority needed for approval -- disappointed not only Ali but D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and Del. Walter Fauntroy who waited for the result in an office across the hall from the House floor.
"One damn vote," muttered Fauntroy, clutching a prepared press release in his hand that anticipated a favorable vote and was full of praise for lawmakers. "We're obviously disappointed. But we can't declare war on the state of Maryland. I think we're eventually going to prevail."
For the third time in three weeks, the measure was killed in the House by the slimmest of margins. Supporters had labored for weeks to make the neighboring state of Maryland a showcase for their national drive to ratify the controversial D.C. amendment.
Amendment supporters had every reason to believe they would prevail in the Maryland General Assembly during the first five weeks of this session. The amendment breezed through the Senate and a House Committee -- leading sponsors to believe they would have an easy time making Maryland the fourth state to ratify the measure. Instead, it became the eighth state to defeat the voting rights amendment, leaving the six-month ratification drive in extremely serious trouble.
The amendment ran into trouble in Maryland when it reached the House floor. There it encountered a solid bloc of Republican rural and conservative legislators who said they felt that full representation in Congress for the District would result in the election of black, liberal and Democratic congressmen and senators.
The opponents defeated the House measure twice -- assisted by sloppy planning by the sponsors, who allowed the amendment to come to a vote while some of their allies were absent.
Then, the opposition prepared itself for the final and crucial vote today.
Nothing more clearly explains how and why the voting rights amendment failed in Maryland than the stories of three Washington-area delegates and one from Baltimore who voted against the measure today after supporting it in one or both of the earlier tests. Many of the pressures and forces that were at work in this dramatic struggle zeroed in on these four men -- Robin Ficker, Anthony Cicoria, Francis White and Raymond Dypski.
It was Ficker, an inscrutable freshman Republican from Montgomery County, who got the call from Muhammad Ali. The call was arranged by Eldridge Spearman, Fauntroy's assistant. who recently discovered that Ficker actually knows Ali, having jogged with "The Champ" at his training lodge in Deer Lake, Pa., and whenever he comes to the Washington area to fight at the Capital Centre.
Fauntroy and his comrades had reason to beliveve that Ficker would end up on their side, particularly after the call from his world-famous friend. They knew, after all, that it was this same Robin Ficker who jogged around the monuments of Washington with Fauntroy three years ago in a publicity marathon for voting rights and then, in the summer of 1976, carried a scroll supporting the same cause in the first leg of a marathon from Washington to the Democratic convention in New York.
Within an hour of Ali's phone call from New Orleans this morning, just about everyone in Annapolis knew about it. Ficker made sure of that. "Hey, you missed it. I just got a call from 'The Champ,'" he would tell one and all. "He invited me to his retirement party and told me I should support District voting rights. It was really something."
Still, when the time came to vote today, Ficker pushed the red "no" button. On the steps of the State House afterwards, Ficker explained that he considered his conscience, which told him to support it, and his constituents, who told him in a recent poll that he should oppose it. "I chose my constituents -- they told me they don't like the commuter tax and they don't like the commuter tax and they don't don't represent them, who will?"
The single needed vote has eluded proponents for weeks. Every time the vote was taken, they picked up new support but not enough to offset the defectors. The Legislative Black Caucus offered vote trades, big labor promised future campaign support and the Catholic Archdiocese appealed to their consciences, but nothing worked.
When Del. Charles Blumenthal (D-Prince George's), the chief House sponsor of the voting rights amendment, went around looking for cosponsors several months ago, one of the first colleagues he persuaded to join the cause was Anthony Cicoria. a freshman Democrat who runs a bowling trophy and gun shop in Hyattsville.
Cicoria signed on as a cosponsor, he said at the time, because he believed that "everyone in America should have the right to vote for their own representatives in Congress." When the measure reached the House floor for the first vote Feb. 22, however, Cicoria was at a pollution confrence n Phoenix as part of a four-member delegation from the Environmental Matters Committee The amendment lost that day by one vote.
On Feb. 27 when the measure came back for reconsideration, Cicoria voted for it but when it failed again by one vote he immediately started to have second thoughts. "I'm going to have to take a hard look at what my constitutents want," Cicoria started compiling a file of letters and telephone messages from his constitents. On Feb. 28, his secretary brought him this message:
"To Tony. A guy from the gun group that supported you in the campaign called. He said you are a oneterm delegate if you vote for the D.C. voting amendment."
Letters came from the Democratic Women's Club of Decatur Heights, the Mount Rainer Democratic Club and the Committee on Democratic Education -- all urging Cicoria to oppose the measure. There was a letter from another campaign supporter who wrote "Giving the District voting rights makes as much sense as granting powers to Tombstone, Arizona."
Cicoria took that advice today, and when it was over he said: "I represent the people of the 22nd District of P.G. County, not the District."
As Cicoria worked in his office this afternoon, Thomas Mooney and Richard Palumbo, the two other delegates from the 22nd District, sat across the hall dismayed by what their colleague had done.
"He must have a different constituency than mine," said Palumbo. "I didn't get more than one or two calls and letters from the opponents."
Then Nathaniel Exum, a black delegate from Prince George's and one of the floorleaders of the voting rights bill, walked into the room. "You're boy is for S - - -!" said Exum, shaking a finger at Mooney and Palumbo. "You know who I'm talking about. He better never come to me asking for anything ever again."
Francis White, the former Prince George's County Councilman who was elected to the House of Delegates last year, had been vacillating on D.C. voting rights from the day he reached Annapolis. When the proponents first went around seeking support, White told them he was undecided. Then when Fauntroy testified at a hearing of the House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee, of which White is a member, the freshman delegate walked up to Fauntroy and told him he would vote for the measure.
White did not vote when the D.C. voting rights bill was considered by his committee -- he was at the doctor's office for several hours that day -- but he did vote for the measure the first two times on the House floor. Then, like Cicoria, he started getting letters and telephone calls from opponents back in his district.
This constituent pressure finally got to White this morning as he was walking to the State House. "I guess in my own mind I support voting rights," said White. "But I had to balance my conscience with the feelings of the voters. The climate just didn't seem right. Maybe next year."
Moments before the vote, Baltmore Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell III, a sponsor of the amendment, was hovering near the House door, trying to seal commitments from wavering delegates. One of the lawmakers he collared was Ray Dypski, a Baltimore Democrat, who had voted twice for the measure but was now uncertain.
Dypski, who fashions himself as the proverbial David who confronts the Goliath utilities of Maryland, was upset that a cosponsor of the amendment Sen. Robert Douglass, was considering offering an amendment for one of Dypski's bills that would extend the deadline for payment of gas and electric bills.
Mitchell assured Dypski that the amendment would be dropped as long as he continued to support the voting rights measure. That wasn't enough for Dypski, who told Mitchell he wanted to discuss the matter first with his brother, Sen. Cornell Dypski, who was sitting in a Senate committee while the measure was debated.
"Dypski said, 'Get my brother on the phone,'" recalled Mitchell. "I ran down to the phone and the committee's line was busy. Meanwhile the vote came before I could get his brother and he (Ray Dypski) voted against it. He was the difference. The one vote we needed. It was sheer spite on his part."