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Politics As Usual

Marvin Mandel: A Complicated Life

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Marvin mandel’s 1977 corruption conviction was overturned in 1987.

Marvin Mandel: A Complicated Life

Produced by Maryland Public Television, where it debuts Feb. 24 at 9 p.m.


Maryland’s 56th governor, a two-term Democrat, went to federal prison for 19 months for a 1977 corruption conviction. His name was Marvin Mandel, and his crime was greasing the skids for his racetrack-owning cronies to increase the number of horse-racing days allowed their track, then receiving their heartfelt thanks in the form of cash and valuables.

By the time Mandel’s conviction was secured, corruption scandals in Maryland politics were old hat, and they were a bipartisan affair: they had already taken down Vice President Spiro Agnew (R), Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson (D), Baltimore County State’s Attorney Samuel A Green Jr. (D), Anne Arundel County Executive Joseph W. Alton (R), and U.S. Sen. Daniel Brewster (D).

But Mandel was different. He successfully overturned his conviction a decade later, in 1987, by leveraging a then-recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to argue that his crime wasn’t really criminal. And unlike the others, Mandel resurrected himself, working for decades more—even to this day—as a go-to lobbyist and lawyer with stellar Annapolis ties.

Maryland Public Television’s Marvin Mandel: A Complicated Life aims to navigate these complexities, with its chief political correspondent, Lou Davis, mining the archives, Mandel’s mind, and contemporaries’ memories to, as Davis says, shoot for a “balancing act” over “how much of the good stuff and how much of the bad stuff to emphasize” in a 30-minute documentary.

Davis says the idea for the Mandel project emerged after the success of 2009’s Citizen Schaefer, MPT’s show exploring the life and legacy of William Donald Schaefer two years before the former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor and comptroller passed away. “We thought this was a story as interesting, if not more interesting, than Schaefer’s,” says Davis, and—pointing out that Mandel is almost 94 years old—“we wanted to do it while we still had him here.”

Davis interviewed Mandel three times over the past year for the project, and relates that he “still says that he did nothing wrong, that this was the way of life then—this is what everybody was doing.” Mandel got “caught up in this at almost the same time as a pretty nasty divorce—he was having money problems, and he needed that money,” Davis adds.

Despite the dirt Mandel did, Davis points out that “some would say that he was the most effective governor in modern times” by “completely reorganizing state government to set up the whole cabinet system that we still have” and establishing revenue streams—the sales tax, the gas tax—that made possible the state’s modern roads-and-public-transportation system.

In terms of nailing the story for a viewing audience, Davis credits Mandel with providing a driving narrative. “He’s a terrific storyteller,” Davis says. “He really makes the show.”

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