THE CONSERVATIVE by Neil Rolde
THE CONSERVATIVE is the third story in the serialization of Neil Rolde’s Political Tales: Stories from a Veteran Politician.
Mr. Rolde is a Maine renowned historian, former politician and, philanthropist. His many years of public service include being an assistant to Governor Kenneth M. Curtis for six years and 16 years as Representative in the Legislature. The book is published by Polar Bear & Company. 175 pages, $12.95 ISBN:978-1-882190-27-0
“The stories were engaging – reminding an insider of the ‘old days,’ and giving an outside observer a good sense of what truly goes on behind the scenes. It certainly brought me back to the days when I was sitting in one of those leather chairs, hearing the gavel come down and wondering what was about to happen next!” -Congresswoman Chellie Pingree
THE CONSERVATIVE by Neil Rolde
At quarter past one p.m., the corridor running past the Legislature’s committee rooms in the State Office Building was like a city sidewalk. Swarms of humanity flowed in either direction. Then, like customers entering stores, people would disappear through doorways and take seats inside, waiting for the public hearings scheduled to commence in fifteen minutes.
Not all of the committees were holding open meetings. The Education Committee had posted a block letter sign, Work Session, with a list of bill numbers. Only members could speak, although often many spectators were present to observe the proceedings and hear the legislators bicker—that is, if any of the legislation seemed important. This did not appear to be the case today in Education. Now and then, someone would peer at the notice, shake his or her head and hurry on to another venue.
The Honorable Representative Harold Marburg of the Education Committee, standing outside the door, summed up their task in a brief exchange with a reporter. “Don’t bother with us this afternoon, Joe. Just junk stuff.”
“Thanks for the warning, Hal,” was the reply. “I’d come to the same conclusion. But if anything newsworthy happens, if you should shoot your chairman, for example, remember, I’ll be next door.”
Marburg grinned and said, “You’ll be the first to hear of it, Joe.”
A spontaneous laugh from the newsman followed and the fellow soon disappeared, joining a veritable throng crowding into an adjacent—and larger—hearing room.
Another member of the Education Committee, arriving, saw Marburg, jerked his thumb at the nearby crush and asked, “What’s going on over there, Hal?”
“I can guess whose side you’re on,” said the newcomer with a pleasant smirk. “Surely not the impoverished tenants, I’d wager.”
“I don’t have time to argue, Paul,” said Marburg. “Before we go in, I need to try out a proposition on you.”
“Oh, oh, I’m in trouble,” said the other man in mock alarm.
“I want to play a trick on Chairman Wes,” said Marburg. “Good, clean fun. It’s going to be boring as hell today, and we could all use some amusement.”
Hal Marburg had a seemingly perpetual mischievous look on his face. He was a man in his forties, always well dressed, preppy fashion, wearing a sports jacket, dark slacks, rep tie, shiny black loafers. Through his twinkly blue eyes, he exuded an impish, friendly quality. Even the liberals had to admit, “Mr. Conservative” was a good guy.
State Senator Wesley Banks, who chaired the Education Committee, was just such a liberal. When asked by his friends how he could tolerate having Marburg on his committee, he would answer, “One thing about Hal, you always know where he stands, and he does exhibit a few human instincts.” Whereupon this septuagenarian “super lefty,” as Marburg openly called him, would roll his eyes heavenward.
“What devilish trick do you have up your sleeve?” Paul asked Marburg.
“Remember that weird bill of Charley Watson’s?”
Paul thought for a moment. “Good God, yes! You called it the Designated Hitter Bill.”
“I mean, school discipline is fine with me. But to require the government to order each and every school in our state to name a single dispenser of corporal punishment—that’s beyond the pale.”
“You really cracked us up with that ‘designated hitter’ designation,” Paul replied. “But didn’t we kill the sucker already?”
“We never took a final vote, which we’re scheduled to do now. And Charley’s on my case to give him at least one vote, so he can debate it on the floor.”
“Do it. We lefties’ll have a field day.”
“I’ve got a better idea.”
So began a comedy of sorts, which, had Joe the reporter got wind of it, might have engendered a harrumphing, prissy editorial about the Legislature’s goofing off on the job and wasting the taxpayers’ money by indulging in a bunch of foolishness. Remember, though, it was penny-pinching Mr. Conservative who started the ball rolling. And remember, too, that it was in response to a knuckleheaded initiative on the part of a political soul-mate of his. Under the rules of this Legislature, all bills had to be handled, no matter how silly they were.
“Okay,” said Paul, “tell me your diabolical plot.”
Tongue-in-cheek, obviously, Hal Marburg labeled his proposal a “truly bipartisan effort.” He then added, “In the end, we’re going to sluice this turkey, anyway—a bipartisan, unanimous vote of shouldn’t-pass. But we have a chance to tease Wes before we do.”
“Oh, brother!” Paul exclaimed. “Poor Wes.”
“Look,” said Marburg. “I like that old fellow just as much as you do. He’s a great chairman, a great human being. But he’s always so serious and straight-laced. Let’s shake him up a bit just for a few minutes.”
All along the Office Building corridor, varied conversations were going on. The role of endless talk in the formulation of laws has always been paramount. Hal Marburg, who had an inquiring if mischievous mind, more than once had posited the question of what it might be like to serve in a body of deaf-mutes. Unlike Chairman Wes, Hal could be almost clownish at times. After Paul listened to Marburg explain his—well, you could actually call it a “prank”—he cracked a smile. “Poor Wes,” he stated again. “But I can just imagine the expression on his face.”
“Should be hilarious,” said Marburg. “Then, we tell him it’s a joke. Only everyone has to be in on this together. Bipartisan, all the way.”
“God, I hope Wes doesn’t have a heart attack.”
“He’s a tough old bird. Flies only on one left wing, remember. Okay, if you take care of your gang, line them all up, I’ll take care of the right wing. Okay?”
“Who says the Legislature has to be boring? Okay.”
The wrinkle here was that when Chairman Wes laid the Designated Hitter Bill before them, expecting a quick, unanimous shouldn’t-pass verdict, they would all pretend instead to favor the measure. A motion would be offered: should-pass. Ridiculous justifications would then be presented. No doubt Wes would argue as if they were serious. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” Hal Marburg volunteered before sending Paul on into the committee room.
While he still lingered outside, he spoke to an arriving woman member, one as conservative as he was. He whispered his plot to her and she giggled, nodding vigorously.
Within about five minutes, all members of the committee were accounted for, except one. Marburg had accosted his fellow party members before they entered the meeting, and when the door opened Paul could be seen working his side of the aisle. The only person absent was Chairman Wesley Banks.
If the perils of screwing around during law making were ever ascendant in Hal Marburg’s mind, it was at this moment. No Wes, no joke. He’d have to call everything off.
And who should approach him an instant later but Charley Watson! The sponsor of that idiotic legislation was a florid-faced, heavy-set, middle-aged man. In repose, he seemed always scowling, and his immense shoulders and bull neck gave him the air of an angry fullback. “You watching out for my bill?” he greeted Marburg. “It’s up today.”
“I’m well aware of the fact, Charley.”
“Damn good bill, ain’t it?”
“Uhm, yes . . . but maybe premature.”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
Charley’s intimidating tone apparently made no impression on Mr. Conservative. Suavely Marburg said, “Even great bills, Charley, sometimes need a little seasoning. A wicked good idea like yours might be too advanced for little minds. This first time around, that is, I’ll make the motion to approve, but prepare to be disappointed. You may have to try again.”
And again and again and again, Marburg thought.
Such ruminations at this point ceased, since he caught sight of Chairman Banks’s courtly figure, magnificently silvery haired, his dignity aided by a trim Van Dyke beard of the same hue, making his way slowly with a cane toward their meeting room.
Charley Watson kept on haranguing Hal. “I got a speech that’s going to knock their socks off. Who doesn’t want to put an end to trouble-making in schools?”
“Yeah, that’s a major problem for the country,” Hal said without a trace of irony. Then he proceeded to go on the offensive. He tapped a forefinger against an identification badge Representative Watson had pinned to his suit coat. “Charley,” he said like a scolding father, “you’re now serving your third term here. Why are you still wearing your nametag like a goddamn freshman?”
The ploy worked. That florid face opposite flushed all the more. Obviously thrown off balance, Charley touched the spot himself, while Marburg kept at him in terrier fashion. “Also, Charles Watson, you look like a nerd with that thing. We can’t have conservatives acting like nerds. Show some decorum, man!” These words were uttered as Wes Banks finally reached the doorway. Turning his back completely on the still-flustered Charley Watson, Marburg immediately followed his chairman into the Education Committee room.
The other members had already seated themselves around a horseshoe-shaped table. In this particular Legislature, all committees were joint committees, containing both senators and reps. The senior senator from the majority party was automatically the chair. Since today’s labor was a work session on a group of non-important bills, not many seats had been put out for an audience. A support staff of two, a female clerk-typist and a male researcher, were at desks behind the head of the horseshoe, within close proximity to the chairman.
Filling his place, the venerable Wesley Banks picked up a gavel laid out in front of him and sharply smacked it down twice. “This work session will come to order!” he announced.
He had a commanding presence, despite an air of frailty due to his advancing years. He had been a tenured professor of English and literature at a major university, where he had also years before been a standout football player. Upon retirement, he had entered politics and been unbeatable ever since.
His command of the Education Committee was seemingly just as entrenched.
Conceivably, Hal Marburg’s intended escapade contained a germ of rebelliousness—a tweaking of that impeccably groomed Van Dyke beard. A conservative, yes, Marburg—but with inclinations to be naughty. Anti-establishmentarianism in this state could take the form of a turning to the right. At any rate, his bit of proposed fun had caught a nerve among the other members of the committee, like a group of school kids who have put a whoopee cushion on their teacher’s seat.
“We will not follow today’s agenda exactly,” Chairman Banks began, in the obedient silence that followed his gaveling. “I’m going to advance an item, since in my discussions with you I have a sense that there is no support for this measure. Then he cited the identification number of the Watson document and read its official title, An Act to Further Discipline in the Schools, avoiding the term, “designated hitter.”
“Is there a motion?”
Hal Marburg raised his hand.
“What is your motion, Mr. Marburg?”
“I move should-pass, Mr. Chairman.”
A very small pause was the only sign from the chair that something disconcerting had happened. No flicker of emotion entered Wesley Banks’s calm facial features as he formally enquired, “Is the motion of Mr. Marburg seconded?”
Another hand shot up. This time it was Paul. The liberal. “I second the motion, Mr. Chairman.”
Okay, something was really wrong, but you’d never know it by looking at Wesley Banks. The old gentleman’s aplomb was splendid. Instead of the hilarious expression the conspirators intended, the only effect on the chair was a pro-forma assertion as if any old bill were under consideration. “This legislation has been moved and seconded. Is there discussion?” Wesley Banks intoned.
So doing, he cast glances not just at Hal Marburg and Paul but at the entire seated committee.
He spoke again, no doubt considering this diversion a prerogative of the chair. “Mr. Marburg,” he addressed the leading conservative, “for my own curiosity, you initially had shown nothing but scorn toward this curious concept of school control. I believe it was you who first mocked it as the Designated Hitter Bill. Would you care to explain your conversion?”
“No, Mr. Chairman,” Hal shot back. “Except that I read the language of the bill over again—had second thoughts.”
“I see. And Paul, you’ve also had second thoughts.”
“Well, uhm . . .” Obviously disconcerted, the prominent liberal gulped a few times and at last said, truthfully, “I listened to Hal.”
“Very well. Does anyone else wish to speak?”
A middle-aged, motherly-appearing woman at the other end of the horseshoe signaled that she wished to contribute and was given permission. Wes called her by her first name, which was Harriet.
“Mr. Chairman, I know that no one seemed to be in favor of this bill before. But Representative Charles Watson has spoken to the members of our party on the committee. What he really would like is a chance to discuss it on its merits on the floor, gain one vote at least so it doesn’t die in committee.”
After nodding, the chairman asked, “Have all spoken?” Waiting only a moment he called for the vote.
It could well be surmised that Wes thought the majority would vote down Hal’s motion of should-pass. So this is where the hilarious expression finally came in. The old gentleman lost his aplomb. Disbelief comically distorted his features. Every hand had gone up in support of should-pass. That is, except his own, held in reserve for the should-not-pass side.
No one laughed in the silence that followed. The members acted shocked, not silly. All eyes were directed upon Hal Marburg.
And at the same precise instant, the door of the committee room opened and three newcomers entered. They were senior citizens, a woman and two men, contemporaries, it seemed, of the committee chair. Various permutations of white hair, none as silvery as Wes Banks’s, advertised their ages. The woman had tints of light blue in hers, a bald man had a fringe of grey, and a gaunt, string-bean of a bent-over fellow sported a white moustache and carefully groomed crew-cut of the same hue. These were well-dressed people, visibly wealthy.
As they headed for the seats across from the horseshoe table, Chairman Banks, seemingly recovered from his surprise, suddenly declared, “The chair wishes to recognize the presence of a former member of this body, the Honorable Phoebe M. Esteridge, and welcome her and her companions. Phoebe, dear, it’s a pleasure to see you.”
“Senator Banks, Wesley, we’re sorry for the interruption. We are here to listen to one of your later bills.”
“Well, you know, Phoebe, I can’t let you speak on it. This is a work session,” the chair responded.
“Of course,” Mrs. Esteridge agreed. “I had wanted to come and speak at the hearing but was detained out of state. This bill I’m talking about is very important to our State Association for Right Reform of Schools, or STARRS. Charles Watson, at our urging, put in this innovative centralized approach to school discipline.”
The guests, so to speak, sat down following this exchange. Wesley Banks took an extra minute to explain to them that the measure in question had been moved up on the schedule and had already been discussed.
Hesitating, he was perhaps getting ready to tell “Phoebe dear,” that her precious bill had just been voted on favorably—overwhelmingly if inexplicably so, actually. Yet suddenly Hal Marburg was on his feet waving his hand to be recognized.
“For what purpose does the gentleman rise?” Chairman Banks asked him.
“Point of order, Mr. Chairman, point of order.”
“What is your point of order, Representative Marburg?”
“I request a five-minute recess, Mr. Chairman.”
Had Wesley Banks not been preoccupied by the arrival of Phoebe Esteridge and company, he might have noticed that some quick note passing between Hal Marburg and Paul had occurred. Although doubting openly that a genuine point of order was the correct motion, he allowed the recess, unusual though it might be during a work session. But he, himself, did not leave the committee room, unlike the other members. He went over and chatted with Phoebe and the two men.
Passersby in the corridor outside would not have stopped to listen to the parley that seemed to be going on among the members of the Education Committee. While it may have been unusual to interrupt a work session and especially to involve about a dozen participants, one could easily guess it was strictly about committee business. The precise nature of the confab, however, could hardly be divined. A weird set of circumstances had been unleashed by Hal Marburg’s harmless little fooling around. It seemed that Mr. Conservative was truly on a hot spot.
To recap somewhat: The Designated Hitter Bill had been officially voted on at the work session. What would make its initial fate absolutely final would be for Chairman Banks to announce the result, which he hadn’t had a chance to do. It appeared that his would be the one negative reported. That would create quite an uproar, if it were allowed to stand.
Hal’s strategy was to move for a “reconsideration,” as soon as the first tally was solidified. He could do this because he had voted on the prevailing side—in favor of should-pass. Then, following his proposed script, everyone else would vote with him to reconsider; then a new motion to s-can the original bill would be offered and, with Wes joining them, provide a unanimous nay, which under this Legislature’s rules meant instant death for the proposed law.
Except—and here’s what Hal Marburg explained to the rest of them, as he had in his note to Paul: “God help me, I had no idea that Phoebe Esteridge would show up here, that she was even involved. I should have realized Charley Watson wasn’t acting on his own. Phoebe’ll have my head on a platter if I make the move to reconsider and even if I simply vote against it. I can see a letter to our State Committee excoriating me . . . Probably, it’ll go to the newspapers, too. I’ll be Benedict Marburg and—”
Paul interrupted. “Hold on, buddy. As I pointed out in my note, you made a promise to us. I’ve been told that real conservatives keep their promises, that they don’t weasel out when the going gets rough.”
“Yeah, well you liberals will have some explaining to do to your lefty pals—how you could initially support this clinker.”
Paul cast glances at several members as he responded, “We’ll take our chances. And, Hal, you have to keep your word.”
The desperation on Hal Marburg’s expressive face lasted only a few more seconds. He signaled for silence. “Okay. Okay. I’ve got an idea. How’s this?” What he outlined to the group was a wily scheme, aided by his experienced knowledge of legislative practice. When they went back inside, he would ask Wes to have the Watson bill tabled. Since you can’t debate or even discuss a tabling motion, he said he’d give his reason and then have Paul make the actual tabling motion.
“And, pray, what is your excuse for tabling?” asked the woman member named Harriet.
“For more study, of course. That I had just received a communication indicating Charley’s bill might be considered child abuse. I’d argue no action should be taken without getting an opinion from the attorney general.”
“Will that work?” Paul asked.
“Let’s say it doesn’t,” Hall answered him. “Wes denies the tabling motion. Then, I’ll move reconsideration, changing my vote to shouldn’t-pass on the grounds that the child abuse question has to be answered. You’ll all vote with me, and Wes is certain to be against the bill, anyway. Unanimous down the tubes.”
“Machiavelli Marburg,” Harriet declared.
Thus did her admiring pronouncement seem to settle the matter. Within moments, led by Hal and Paul, they were all filing back into the committee room and repopulating the horseshoe table.
Wes Banks had previously returned to his seat. As soon as everyone had settled, he reached for the chairman’s gavel. “Now, to make that vote official—”
Hal beat him to the punch, standing up, crying, “Mr. Chairman! Mr. Chairman!”
“Is this another point of order, Mr. Marburg?” A sly dig.
“Mr. Chairman, I need to make a tabling motion and explain why and have a colleague ready to offer the move to table because it can’t be debated, right?”
“Proceed, Mr. Marburg,” Wes Banks said, now sounding a tad crotchety.
“The necessity for tabling is as follows, Mr. Chairman.”
Hal’s performance was a tribute to his political abilities. He masterfully weaved together a fantasy and a logical possibility. The fictional element was of a mysterious warning—received somehow after the start of the work session—that the intended punishment in the bill might constitute child abuse. Farfetched yet plausible. The better part of valor would be to stop now and use the tabling procedure to halt its progress until a legal opinion could be granted. And since he had now spoken on the issue, he hoped one of the other members would table the matter for him.
Up stood Paul, who was recognized by the chair and fulfilled Representative Marburg’s request, phrasing it “to table to an indefinite date.”
A sense of drama accompanied the next expected action, as everyone directed his or her attention toward Chairman Banks.
Slowly, deliberately and loudly, Wes stated: “A tabling motion is not in order.”
Then, Wes continued, “But Mr. Marburg, you can ask for a reconsideration of the previous vote.”
This was exactly in line with Hal’s prediction. He had already prepared the speech that would follow his motion. Rather eloquently, he spelled out the dangers of passing a bill that might be tainted. The conservative thing to do, he insisted, was to verify the act’s validity. Therefore he welcomed the chairman’s suggestion.
Paul did not get up and say that the liberal thing to do was the same. He didn’t have to. His folks were only too happy to reconsider their support.
In the hubbub of all this contention, no one noticed that the chairman hadn’t voted either time, as if his opposition to the Watson bill could be taken for granted.
Yet reconsideration couldn’t end the stalemate. If should-pass no longer applied, shouldn’t-pass seemed the only option left. With several worried glances at Phoebe Esteridge and a repetition of his conservative-thing-to-do argument, Hal Marburg, despite his promise to Charley Watson, set up the immediate killing of the Designated Hitter Bill.
All hands were raised when Wes Banks called for a vote. Unanimous! Well, not exactly.
Hal had noticed: “Mr. Chairman, you haven’t voted.”
“The chair votes in the negative,” the canny septuagenarian said, with a kindly half-smile and a wink at Phoebe Esteridge. He voted to keep the bill alive, and that one vote salvaged Charley Watson’s desire for a floor debate. The Education Committee’s Report to the Legislature of “twelve-to-one” would confirm this outcome. Hal Marburg would say over and over again that he couldn’t believe it.
There are no histories that contain such little incidents that happen in the course of lawmaking, on the state level, the federal level, and certainly on a municipal or county level in our complicated, multilayered U.S. system of governance. The media is too intent on big stories, usually emphasizing the sensational. Records are kept of debates and published verbatim, and thus one can later read Charley Watson’s remarks on a certain legislative document that eventually was defeated. No mention of Hal Marburg nor Wesley Banks, save for their names on the Committee Report—Marburg listed as opposed to the bill, Banks for it, with naturally no editorial comment on how unusual this was. No mention, either, of the informal, sardonic nickname of Designated Hitter Bill.
There was, indeed, a certain short-lived buzz about Wesley Banks, why he’d done what he had, that he really knew all along about the joke Mr. Conservative Marburg had tried to play on him, with its unlikely denouement. There was also talk about Wes’s collusion with Phoebe Etheridge, briefly reviving old gossip that there had been more than just politicking from opposite sides between them in the past. Some discussion was had—in the conservative camp—how Hal Marburg had received a tongue lashing from the conservative doyen and had answered back sassily that conservatives had to bend all efforts on the educational front to promoting school vouchers, not distractions like school discipline.
How did Hal vote in the House chamber on the Designated Hitter Bill after Charley Watson made his arguments? No record exists. Charley forgot to ask for a roll call, and no one else did. The numbers in the printed record show close to a two-thirds vote to kill it.
This footnote, so to speak, is all that remains for posterity to ponder, and chances are that even the participants of the comedy, in the awesome crush of work, doing the people’s business, have dropped it from their own memories.