Md. Leaders Pay Tribute to Clay Mitchell

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (right) stands next to former House speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. during a ceremony in 2018 dedicating the Kent Narrows Bridge to Mitchell. Maryland State Highway Administration photo

Tributes poured in Friday for Roy Clayton Mitchell Jr., the former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates who died Thursday of cancer. A proud son and lifelong resident of the Eastern Shore, Mitchell was 83.

“His death is a great loss for our state and the Eastern Shore, which he loved with every fiber in his being,” said U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D), who preceded Mitchell as speaker.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) ordered state flags flown at half-staff in Mitchell’s honor until internment. Mitchell, Hogan said in a statement, “leaves an indelible mark on our great state.”

Last year, Hogan and a passel of other state officials attended a ceremony along U.S. 50 naming the Kent Narrows Bridge after Mitchell.

Mitchell is the second speaker of the House to die this year and the second top-ranking politician from the Eastern Shore to pass away: former Gov. Harry R. Hughes (D), who served from 1979 to 1987, died on March 13 at the age of 92, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D) died on April 7, one day before Sine Die.

Mitchell was an Army veteran who worked as a farmer and small businessman. His political career began in 1966, with his election as a Kent County commissioner. He won a seat in the House of Delegates in 1970, and became chair of the Eastern Shore delegation a few years into his first term.

Mitchell flourished during a time when conservative Democrats were commonplace in rural Maryland. He became chair of the Appropriations Committee in 1983 and was widely known for his budgetary prowess and fiscal responsibility. He often clashed with more liberal politicians over state spending.

“I will always remember our debates when I was Speaker and he served as the Appropriations Chair for the House of Delegates,” Cardin said. “Clay may have described himself as ‘low-key’ but he was tough and provided us with fiscal leadership that left a positive imprint on our state.”

Those clashes continued when Mitchell succeeded Cardin as speaker in 1987. His tenure as the House’s presiding officer coincided with the first six years of Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer’s term. The House under Mitchell frequently sought to cut Schaefer’s budgets.

“Speaker Mitchell served with distinction during challenging economic times for the State and, as a fellow Appropriator, I appreciate his reputation for being fiscally responsible and directing State dollars where they were most needed,” current Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) said in a statement.

But Mitchell’s fiscal probity encountered resistance in the House, and suburban liberals, led by then-Del. Nancy K. Kopp (D-Montgomery) – who is now state treasurer – attempted to overthrow Mitchell in late 1992. The coup fell short, but it took its toll, and Mitchell stepped down as speaker – and left the legislature – months later.

One of those suburban lawmakers who clashed then with Mitchell was Peter V.R. Franchot (D), who is now the state comptroller.

“Clay Mitchell was the Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates when I was just getting my start as a young delegate from Montgomery County,” Franchot recalled in a Facebook post. “For more than 30 years, the Speaker has been a treasured source of sound advice, reassurance and support for me. Truth be told, he could also let me know, in his own quiet but firm way, when I was off base on an issue!”

Mitchell is survived by three sons, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His wife of 59 years, known as “Teel,” died in 2017.

Mitchell’s family said that a viewing will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. and 5 to 7 p.m. at the Fellows Family Funeral Home, 370 Cypress Ave. in Millington on June 20. Funeral services will be held on June 21 beginning at the Fellows Family Funeral Home at 11 a.m. with internment at the Shrewsbury Church in Kennedyville.

In lieu of flowers, the family is asking that a memorial donation be made in Mitchell’s name to Compass Regional Hospice, 160 Coursevall Drive, Centreville, MD 21617.

Several people paying tribute to Mitchell referenced his fondness for Twinny’s Place, an eatery in Galena.

“I looked to Clay Mitchell as a guiding light for all that is good and honorable about public service,” state Senate Minority Leader Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore) said in a Facebook post. “His advice to me over the years was indispensable and I believe he made me a better legislator.

“There was no bigger champion for the Eastern Shore than Speaker Mitchell. A son of Kent County, he never forgot where he came from. He brought ‘Eastern Shore Values’ to the State House and represented our communities with zeal and passion.”

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