ANNAPOLIS, Md.—A colorful and complex figure in Maryland politics, Marvin Mandel was seen by some as an innovator who reorganized state government to be more efficient. For others, he was forever stained by his conviction for selling the powers of office.
Mandel died Sunday afternoon after spending two days with family celebrating his stepson’s 50th birthday. He was 95. The cause of death was not yet known.
He was widely acknowledged as a creative and effective governor who restructured state government and pushed big school construction and mass transit initiatives. Yet he made national headlines in a political corruption scandal that sent him to federal prison in a legal case that was later overturned.
Then, there was his tumultuous personal life — including a temporary exile from the governor’s mansion when he left his wife of 32 years to marry another woman. His first wife, Barbara “Bootsie” Mandel, wouldn’t leave the mansion.
“No other governor has had the lasting impact on all three branches of Maryland government and while he held elective office for 28 years, he dedicated his life to making our state a better place to live. It is with heavy hearts that we say goodbye to Governor Mandel, but I know that his legacy will live on, through the many people he touched during the course of his life,” Gov. Larry Hogan in a statement Sunday night. Hogan also ordered flags to fly at half-staff in honor of the former governor.
Mandel was convicted in 1977 along with five co-defendants of mail fraud and racketeering. The charges stemmed from what prosecutors said was a complicated scheme in which Mandel was given money and favors for vetoing one bill and signing another to help his friends make money on a race track deal.
The conviction continued as the dominant event of his career — even after it was overturned in 1987 because of a Supreme Court ruling in another case.
Mandel, a Democrat who spent 19 months in federal prison until President Ronald Reagan commuted the sentence to time served in 1981, steadfastly denied any wrongdoing and insisted he was vindicated when his conviction was overturned.
“I said then, and I say now, that I never did anything illegal as governor of Maryland,” Mandel wrote in his 2010 book, “I’ll Never Forget It: Memoirs of a Political Accident from East Baltimore.”
Attorneys have continued to argue about the case, decades after it faded from national headlines.
Arnold Weiner, who was Mandel’s lead attorney, said at a 2007 forum revisiting the case that prosecutors were “thirsting for more blood” after prosecuting former Vice President Spiro Agnew, who resigned as vice president in October 1973 and pleaded no contest to one count of income tax evasion relating to his time as Maryland governor.
But prosecutors said the federal mail fraud charge was applicable to Mandel, because at the time it allowed prosecutions for people who defrauded someone out of property. They said property could include the honest and faithful services of a public official.
Barnet Skolnik, the lead prosecutor in Mandel’s two trials, said Mandel was given more than $300,000 in value in the form of business interests, real estate deals and clothing in return for his influence to benefit secret owners of a Maryland racetrack with additional racing days.
Before the charges were filed, Mandel was the undisputed top man in Maryland politics. He became governor on Jan. 7, 1969, when Agnew left to become vice president under President Richard M. Nixon. Mandel was Maryland’s first and only Jewish governor.
Maryland had no lieutenant governor, and the constitution specified that the legislature would elect a new governor. As the powerful speaker of the House of Delegates, Mandel easily rounded up a majority of votes in the General Assembly.
He wrote in his memoir that the experience made him decide a lieutenant governor post was needed. He proposed a constitutional amendment creating the office and it passed.
In one of the biggest changes to state government under his tenure, Mandel created a cabinet system in the executive branch that streamlined 240 state agencies that reported to the governor.
A popular governor, Mandel was elected in 1970 and again in 1974 with about two-thirds of the vote each time. His popularity was undimmed by his divorce from his first wife, Barbara. Mandel announced through his press office on July 3, 1973, that he was leaving his wife of 32 years to marry the woman he loved, Jeanne Blackistone Dorsey.
“As (press secretary) Frank DeFilippo said when I gave him the statement and told him to take it down to the press, ‘This is going to be the biggest explosion on July 4th they’ve ever had,'” Mandel recalled in his memoirs.
The first Mrs. Mandel refused to leave the governor’s mansion, telling reporters she thought her husband had lost his mind. Mandel moved into a hotel room and then to an apartment while a settlement was negotiated.
“The biggest problem was that I moved out of the mansion to get a divorce and give Barbara space to make plans for after, but Barbara didn’t want to move out and I wasn’t in much of a position to make her,” Mandel wrote. “Finally, I convinced her to move out.”
Mandel married Dorsey 13 months later, just hours after his divorce became final. Dorsey died in 2001, after 27 years of marriage to Mandel.
Mandel had two children, a son Gary and a daughter Ellen, from his first marriage.