Del. Murray D. Levy, a fixture of public life in Charles County for nearly four decades, will not seek re-election next year, choosing to retire even though his political stock remains high.
The bombshell decision, which Levy (D-Charles) said he came to after months of reflection, stands to shake up the county's political landscape about nine months before the 2010 primary election.
"I'm just ready to lay down the torch or hand it off to the next generation," said Levy, whose name will not appear on the ballot for the first time since 1986, when he was elected county commissioner.
Although Levy declined to anoint a preferred successor, there's no shortage of potential Democratic candidates who might vie to replace him.
Local political observers believe they include Commissioners Edith J. Patterson, Reuben B. Collins II and Gary V. Hodge, former Commissioner Candice Quinn Kelly and Prince George's County Assistant State's Attorney C.T. Wilson, who lives in Charles County. Waldorf businessman Greg Billups, who ran unsuccessfully in 2006, might take a second crack at running for office.
On the Republican side, Levy's planned departure offers hope that the party can reclaim at least one of the three District 28 delegate seats that are all currently held by Democrats.
Two likely contenders both currently serve on the Charles County GOP Central Committee: chairman Bruce Wesbury and member Kirk Bowie. Other names that have been floated include county school board member Jennifer S. Abell and Waldorf pastor Mike Phillips, who is currently running for commissioner, but might reconsider.
"We will have a full slate of Republican candidates running for that office," vowed Wesbury. "Since all of the delegates are Democrats, Murray's departure will give the voters of Charles County a choice in the next election, and it's a choice that we haven't had very often."
Politics played no role in Levy's decision, he said in an interview Monday during which he revealed plans that he has kept under wraps for months, even from his closest friends. Rather, he said he wants to spend more time as a private citizen and sought to avoid staying in politics for life.
"Unless you're prepared to die in office, this day comes either on your own terms or by the people," Levy said.
From his early days in politics, his wife, Sherry, advised him against being "the boxer who didn't know when to quit and kept coming back."
Age was one factor. Giving a fresh face the opportunity to represent Charles County was another. If Levy, 64, sought another term, he would be 69 at its conclusion.
"You hear the clock ticking as you get to a certain age, and I have become conscious of time and what I had left and what I still want to do," he said.
Word of Levy's retirement spread fast Tuesday and stunned his colleagues in Annapolis and at home.
"Gosh knows he's had a stellar career and has developed a reputation in Annapolis as one of the best fiscal minds in the state," said Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton (D-Charles), whose political career began in 1986 alongside Levy as county commissioner. "He's leaving at a very high point in his career."
Even Republicans spoke highly of Levy's dedication to his constituents and his willingness to reach across party lines.
"The people that are going to be effective are the people who can operate in the middle ground and Murray was in that moderate zone," said Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins, a former Republican state delegate and state police superintendent primarily under ex-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) who considers Levy a personal friend despite their ideological differences. "He could give concessions, he could forge consensus and he could give and take. That's our government, it's compromise."
Levy first considered the possibility of calling it quits after this year's legislative session, but wavered. He held a fundraiser at his home in May, at which point Levy said he "had every intention of running." Now, he said he is at peace with the decision he made in September to make this his last term.
"When I make a big decision, I can tell almost immediately if I'm right or wrong," he said. "When I start second-guessing myself the day after, I know it's not the right decision. That didn't happen here."
Presuming Levy does not reconsider, it will mark the end of a career in public service that began in 1971 as Charles County's finance director. He became the county's public works chief in 1976 and was elected commissioner in 1986. When Middleton moved to the Senate in 1994, Levy succeeded him as commissioners' president. He presided during the tornado in 2002 that cut a path of destruction across the county, killing five people and leveling dozens of shops and homes in downtown La Plata, which he said was the defining moment of both his political career and his life.
"It was heart-wrenching and it was exhilarating to see how the community came together," he recalled.
Then in 2004, Charles County Democrats selected him to replace Del. Van T. Mitchell, who stepped down to take a high-level state appointment.
In Annapolis, Levy received a coveted seat on the influential House Appropriations Committee, a rare assignment for a new legislator, but one that spoke to his deep grasp of budget issues and his comprehension of the relationship between state and county governments.
During his five years in Annapolis, Levy has exhibited great passion for the job and played a key role in navigating the complex budget process, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said.
And he's still a respected voice and frequent ally among local government officials from Ocean City to Garrett County.
"He's built a wealth of goodwill and relationships throughout the state," Busch said.
But since shifting to the General Assembly, Levy said he has come to value the slower pace that the part-time legislature offers compared to the hectic year-round tempo of local government.
"The things that other people take for granted are new and special," he said. "[You realize] there is life after politics."
And Levy has become distressed over the increasing partisanship that impedes debate on important issues.
"I'm really concerned that we're losing the ability to disagree and work through it," he said. Members of both parties need to put aside their differences after each election and work toward making decisions, he added. "Your job is not to drill a hole in the other side's boat," he said.
As for his post-political plans, Levy said he's looking forward to adjusting to life as a constituent. But he left the door open to staying active in politics or other ventures in public life. "I don't intend to disappear and live the life of a shut-in," he said.