Casper Taylor, former Speaker of the House of Delegates, dies at 88
Casper R. Taylor Jr., a long-serving and powerful member of the House of Delegates who rose to become speaker but was ousted by angry voters after shepherding gun control legislation through the General Assembly, died in his sleep Monday morning at the age of 88.
While no cause of death was immediately available, Taylor was known to be suffering from several maladies over the past few years.
House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), who joined the House in 1997, when Taylor was speaker, announced his death during a bill-signing ceremony Monday at the State House after speaking with members of his family.
“He was a friend and a mentor,” she said. “It was an honor to serve with him for six years In the General Assembly. When anyone mentions ‘One Maryland,’ it’s because of Speaker Taylor. He championed our efforts to make sure each resident, regardless of their zip code, had the opportunities and resources to find success. This work and his legacy will continue on in the General Assembly. He will be sorely missed.”
Taylor, a tavern owner and civic activist in his hometown of Cumberland, was elected to represent Allegany County in the House in 1974, during an era when Democrats were still winning in rural areas and when conservative Democrats held positions of power in Annapolis. After just four years in the legislature, he became vice chair of the House Economic Matters Committee, and became chair of the panel, which has a broad and potent portfolio of business, utility, labor and regulatory issues, in 1987.
Taylor’s colleagues elected him speaker in 1994, after his predecessor, R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. — another rural, conservative Democrat — resigned from the legislature unexpectedly a year before the end of his term.
Taylor quickly used his position to boost Western Maryland, a part of the state that has more affinity with neighboring communities in West Virginia and Pennsylvania than with the rest of the state and is often overlooked by most of the state’s power elites, who are concentrated in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., regions.
“He was a great friend for Mountain Maryland and got a lot accomplished for the area,” said former Sen. George C. Edwards, a Garrett County Republican who arrived in Annapolis eight years after Taylor did.
Edwards said he and Taylor disagreed on a number of issues but agreed on matters of economic development and the importance of ensuring Western Maryland and other parts of the state were not forgotten. Edwards, like Jones, noted Taylor’s “One Maryland” approach.
He credited Taylor and his relationship with then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D) with re-purposing state funding into the Interstate 68 project in the area. He said Taylor was also helpful in the effort to keep the Kelly Springfield tire headquarters in the region.
“We didn’t agree on everything, but he always made sure I was on budget conference committees when I was in the House,” Edwards said.
Taylor is also widely credited with bringing the Rocky Gap resort and golf course to a state park along Interstate 68 in Allegany County. For the past decade the resort has had a thriving casino.
“He was so proud of where he was from,” said former Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), who became the first woman to serve as House majority leader during Taylor’s tenure as speaker. “He put Western Maryland on the map. He really worked to make Western Maryland a tourist destination.”
When Mitchell announced his surprise resignation in December of 1993, it was widely expected that the speaker pro tem, then-Del. Gary Alexander of Prince George’s County, who had already announced that he did not plan to seek reelection in 1994, would take over as speaker for the final year of the legislative term. But Taylor, thanks in part to a surprise showing of support in liberal Montgomery County, won enough votes in the Democratic caucus to become speaker beginning in January 1994, and wound up serving for nine years. (And between Alexander and Taylor, there were no hard feelings: Alexander wound up giving Taylor a job at his lobbying firm after Taylor left the legislature.)
Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), who was assigned to Economic Matters when Taylor was chair after winning his first race in 1990, said Monday that Taylor’s experience as a business owner helped shape his legislative perspective.
“Cas Taylor in many ways was the epitome of Western Maryland,” he said. “He did some very progressive things, but he did it from the business perspective.”
Barve recalled that one of the most important bills the committee worked on during that era eliminated limitations on health insurance for employees of small businesses due to pre-existing conditions.
“We did it in a very Maryland sort of way,” Barve said. “We didn’t do everything that the advocates wanted and some of the bill went farther than the business community wanted. The first thing I think of when I think of Cas Taylor is this great consumer victory over three years, which no one expected because everyone thought he was this right-winger from Western Maryland.”
Yet Taylor seemed to adapt with the times, former colleagues said. In addition to naming McIntosh the first woman majority leader, he appointed the late Elijah Cummings, who later spent two dozen years in Congress, as the first Black House speaker pro tem.
“He was a great speaker for that time — it was obviously a different time,” McIntosh said. “Cas began to open up the [Democratic] caucus a little bit and Mike Busch built on that. But Cas cracked open the door a little bit that Mike Busch completely flung open during his time as speaker.”
McIntosh also called Taylor “a gentleman” who was eager to mentor younger members. He’d sit after-hours in the bar at the old Loews Hotel on West Street, she recalled, and tell freshmen lawmakers “good stories.”
Some stories that became Annapolis lore involved Taylor himself, and the days that preceded his time as speaker, when he used to wear a toupee. Depending on the story, Taylor would toss the toupee around the House chamber or find himself chasing it down the street after a burst of wind.
Taylor had something of an uneasy relationship with then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who was chief executive for most of the time that Taylor was speaker. They clashed over tax policy, among other issues, and over who would introduce President Clinton when Clinton addressed a joint session of the General Assembly in 1997 (Taylor prevailed because the speech took place in the House chamber, where he outranked everybody). Taylor openly contemplated challenging Glendening in the 1998 Democratic primary, but eventually stood down. And in fact, in 2000, the speaker, eyeing the possibility of becoming Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s running mate in the 2002 gubernatorial election, played a major role in helping pass consequential gun control legislation that year — a decision that led to his political undoing.
The gun control bill became major fodder for outraged Republicans seeking to oust Taylor, and they circulated pictures of the bill-signing ceremony for the legislation — which Clinton also attended — throughout the district. Taylor wound up losing his reelection to Republican LeRoy E. Myers Jr., who ran a general contracting company, by just 76 votes.
‘That’s not how it works down here’
Edwards said at the time he had to combat the notion held by some voters that the person who unseated the speaker then became speaker.
“That’s not how it works down here,” he said.
Edwards said the seat flipping to GOP control came at the expense of losing a presiding officer who had the ability to move important projects.
“He had a very powerful position,” said Edwards. “The person coming in was a new delegate and in the minority party where Democrats were the vast majority. He didn’t have the reputation or sway that Cas had.”
“I think all of us were a little taken aback when he lost,” McIntosh said. “It was a sad time.”
But Taylor was still remembered fondly in his old district. Just 11 months ago, local dignitaries held a ceremony to rename the former Baltimore Street bridge in downtown Cumberland the Casper R. Taylor Jr. Bridge. Taylor and several former colleagues attended.
“It’s just a pretty cool thing to know that Cas’ grandchildren, great grandchildren and their children — generations of people to come — will have a chance to walk and drive across the Cas Taylor bridge,” Brendan Taylor, one of the former House speaker’s two sons, said at the dedication, according to the Cumberland Times-News.
While a full list of survivors was not immediately available Monday evening, Taylor, in addition to his son Brendan, is survived by another son, Dane Taylor, five grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. His wife of 64 years, Polly Taylor, was killed in a car crash in 2021.
According to an online death notice posted Monday afternoon, the family will receive friends at the Scarpelli Funeral Home in Cumberland on Friday from 4 to 7 p.m.. A Christian wake service will be held at 7 p.m. A Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Cumberland on Saturday at 1 p.m., and interment will be in Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Cemetery.