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C. Fraser Smith: The reclamation of Marvin Mandel

Voters who live outside the political bubble of Annapolis must be wondering about the alternative universe evoked as former Gov. Marvin Mandel passes from the scene.

Almost 40 years after he became the poster child of a state in the grips of political self-dealing, Mandel died this week at age 95. He left on a chorus of dissonant hosannas.

What a political craftsman! What an administrative genius! What a mentor and father figure! What a complicated life! We are not likely to see his like again.

People who lived through the Mandel years will say: Let’s hope so.

Full disclosure: I got to Maryland well after his good government days. My introduction to him came after his praiseworthy service.

A favorite word for Mandel’s narrative is “complicated.”

That’s how one finesses the criminal justice chapter. He spent 19 months in federal prison for denying the citizens of Maryland “honest” government.

Federal authorities couldn’t quite prove a quid pro quo in his lucrative dealings with friends. So they settled on the denial of honest government charge.

They did show that friends gave him $300,000 or so to deal with a costly divorce. What did he give them? Marlboro Race Track, a cut-rate operation made more valuable by legislative legerdemain, they alleged.

First he vetoed a bill that would have made Marlboro valuable. With the track’s value depressed, his friends purchased shares of the operation. Then Mandel’s veto was overridden – with help of votes from legislators usually on his side. Presto, Marlboro – and its new owners – were in clover.

He insisted he knew nothing of the purchase. Here’s what makes it “complicated:” A man as talented a political operator as Mandel knew everything.

But that was his story, and he stuck to it for the rest of his life.

Yes, he took an unwieldy government and made it run on time. He made it smaller, dismantling the fiefdoms – persuading the resident chiefs to accept the loss of their empires.

Here, he was giving Marylanders smart government.

All good.

Then the wheels came off.

Mandel split with his wife. He married the “other woman” and did favors for his friends. He went to jail.

Along the way he’d had a falling out with President Jimmy Carter, who let him twist in the wind – folding pillowcases in federal prison — for 19 months. Other white-collar criminals would have gotten out sooner, it was thought

Lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, with the help of the late U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias convinced President Reagan to spring him.

Back in Annapolis, Mandel settled into an elder statesman mode.

He had loved the action, being in the middle of it. And people loved to hear how he’d gently twisted arms or promised judgeships or bridges.

Every few years, usually on birthdays, Bereano would throw a big celebration for him. All the Democratic and some Republican stars were in attendance.

One of the Democrats told me:

“I enjoyed Governor Mandel and you really can’t argue with the breadth of his accomplishments. There aren’t many people that come out of the Baltimore political machines – William Donald Schafer excepted — with that kind of vision and determination.

“He spent his political capital on real accomplishment — and surrounded himself with very smart people as well as tough pols.”

Then came the “complicated” part.

“He was also completely tone deaf to the ethical issues involved — I think his mores completely reflected those of Baltimore clubhouse politics of the ’60s.”

He was, complications and all, a bit of a phenomenon.

He did what he did and he leaves us with a chorus of praise that might embarrass a felon.

He owes much of it to his friend Bereano, who often seemed as close to the ex-governor as a son.

As skilled at relationships as Mandel, Bereano’s Marvin reclamation project was a masterpiece.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.