The living room of the headmaster's house at the Gunston Day School is tastefully furnished with wingback chairs and a grand piano. But when former Gov. Harry Hughes enters with his lunch on a recent visit, he takes the worst possible seat - a brown plastic folding chair, where he sits and delicately balances a plate on his knee.
Someone asks why he didn't choose a more comfortable chair."This one seemed fine," says Hughes, who will turn 80 next week and hasn't lost the air of modesty and decency that served him well over 30 years in public office. He also still has the strong jaw that photographers loved, that great political hair (easily the best hair of any recent Maryland governor), and the courtly manners that speak to his humble, Eastern Shore heritage.
He spent much of the last three years writing his autobiography, My Unexpected Journey, which he views as something to leave his family. But the recently published book is also a tour of a half-century of Maryland politics and the dramas that shaped the state: a struggle over civil rights, urban flight and scandal and corruption at the highest level.
Now Hughes, widely credited with restoring integrity to the governor's office, has been coaxed out of retirement to play a small but influential role in this year's elections. He vetted Mayor Martin O'Malley's finalists for running mate and campaigned for his old friend, U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin. Hughes, whose wife Patricia was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 13 years ago, is also making the case for expanded stem cell research.
He is upset by the nasty and divisive politics that have become the norm and by the increasing influence of religion on government and policy decisions. For Hughes - who was known as an honest and gentlemanly public official who didn't even ask his staff or appointees their political party - the changes are discouraging.
"I worked very closely with the Republican legislators and considered them good friends," says Hughes, a Democrat who served two terms as governor, from 1979 to 1987. "There's an old cliche: The art of government is compromise, and we haven't seen much of that in the last four years."
Hughes thinks religion has stymied advances in stem cell research. And he was incensed by radio host Rush Limbaugh's attacks on Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's and appeared in an ad for Cardin, a proponent of embryonic stem cell research. Limbaugh suggested Fox was acting in the ads to exaggerate the effects of the disease.
"They ought to run that Rush Limbaugh out of the country," Hughes says. "I don't know why the network wouldn't fire him."
There are few people who can raise the ire of the placid Hughes. Rush Limbaugh is one of them. William Donald Schaefer is another. Schaefer, who followed Hughes as governor and undid several Hughes initiatives, both political and personal, is not spared in the book.
When Schaefer took office, his companion, Hilda Mae Snoops, redecorated the public rooms of the governor's mansion after Pat Hughes had painstakingly restored them. "I almost could not believe Schaefer could be so petty," Hughes writes, "but of course I should have known better."
And as governor, Schaefer built the Baltimore light rail line that Hughes had decided was not a priority because it would run parallel to the Jones Falls Expressway. Hughes notes with amazement that the project went forward even when the cost doubled, from $290 million to $600 million.
"But you know Schaefer - he likes to build things," Hughes writes. "Education programs or things like that, he could care less. But building things is easy, particularly if someone names them after you. It is amazing they didn't call that the `Schaefer Light Rail!'"
"Wait till he reads that!" Hughes says in an interview at his Denton home, momentarily relishing the old rivalry.
Still on the scene
His perch on the Eastern Shore has, to some extent, insulated him from state politics. But Hughes never left the scene entirely. He was chairman of the state Democratic Party during Gov. Parris N. Glendening's first term, and he has advised O'Malley this year in his run for governor.
"It gets in your blood," Hughes told a group of students that day at the Gunston Day School in Centreville. Hughes appeared with his co-author on the book, former Sun political writer John W. Frece. What interested students more than politics were Hughes' days as a semi-pro baseball player on the Shore.
Raised in Denton, Hughes was a standout pitcher who played for the New York Yankees' minor league organization before his career was cut short by injury. (He was inducted into the Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame two years ago. "It's a good group," Hughes says. "We all get together and lie.")
Hughes joined the Air Force toward the end of World War II but did not see combat. After the war, he met the woman he would marry, Patricia Donoho, who was taking French lessons from his mother. They were married in 1951, but before it could happen Hughes had to meet the matriarch of his fiancee's family, a great-aunt who lived in Delaware. She asked him two questions:
"Are you a Democrat?"
"Yes," Hughes said.
"Are you an Episcopalian?"
"Well, you will be."
She was right. He soon converted from the Methodist denomination. He joined a Denton law firm and in 1954 was elected to the House of Delegates. As the Eastern Shore was becoming more conservative, Hughes nonetheless voted for every piece of civil rights legislation that came before the Assembly, with one exception - a bill to lift the state's ban on interracial marriage.
Hughes voted to maintain the ban but felt so bad after the vote that he asked the bill's sponsor to reintroduce the measure. The bill came back the next day, Hughes voted in favor, and it passed.
Role of government
Through his decades in public office - 16 years in the General Assembly, six years as state transportation secretary and eight years as governor - Hughes says he was most concerned with government's moral obligation. "I think government exists to do for people what they can't do for themselves," he says.
His reputation for integrity was cemented in 1976, when he didn't play along with politics as usual. Hughes' department had selected, through competitive bidding, a California firm to oversee work on the new Baltimore subway line. But the contract was held up for months by the Board of Public Works, which wanted the job to go to a politically connected Baltimore company.
Hughes would not budge and eventually resigned, telling the press about the tainted process.
Two years later he would run for governor. But even with his honest reputation, it wasn't easy. When he entered the race, he was polling around 5 percent. He campaigned for months without gaining ground. He asked 10 people to be his running mate before someone accepted - a little-known Prince George's County councilman, Samuel W. Bogley. In a Sun story on Hughes' stalled campaign, a political insider famously called him "a lost ball in high grass."
"I wasn't getting anywhere," Hughes says. With virtually no money, he thought of leaving the race but ultimately decided to fight on. "I thought I would regret it the rest of my life if I didn't try."
He needed a miracle, and he got one. On Aug. 20, 1978 - three weeks before the primary - Hughes was endorsed by The Sun. A day later, The Evening Sun also endorsed him, on the front page, saying, "A vote for the right man is never wrong." Hughes put that on his campaign brochures and printed 200,000 copies.
Momentum began to turn as voters realized Hughes was a viable candidate. On Election Day, Sept. 12, Hughes won 37 percent of the vote, beating Acting Gov. Blair Lee III (34 percent) and Baltimore County Executive Ted Venetoulis (24 percent).
(This year, state Del. Peter Franchot scored a similar upset in the primary for state comptroller. After the election, Hughes sent Franchot a note: "I know what it's like.")
Once in office, Hughes focused on improving services for children, the poor and the elderly. He steered the state through a recession and sharp cutbacks in federal aid. And he was the first Maryland governor to seriously address the health of the Chesapeake Bay and raise public awareness about the dangers it faced.
"The people of Maryland are very proud of that bay," Hughes says, but he's disappointed that more progress has not been made since he left office. "It's been 20 or more years and it's just not where we had hoped it would be. It's going to take, I think, a lot more resources being devoted to it than what's being done now."
The attention to the bay is one of Hughes' enduring legacies, says Cardin, who was speaker of the House of Delegates for all eight years Hughes was governor. "He set an agenda for the Chesapeake Bay, and he set the agenda for integrity in government," Cardin says.
This year, Hughes has appeared at several campaign rallies for Cardin. He also met with the 10 finalists to be O'Malley's running mate. They each came to Hughes' Denton home and were grilled in the living room with a view of the Choptank River. O'Malley, who chose Del. Anthony Brown of Prince George's County, said he asked Hughes for help because of his legacy of integrity and service.
"His public service and brand of politics - the politics of change and the politics of reform and the politics of progress - are the sort of politics that I've always been attracted to," O'Malley said.
Hughes lost his last run for office, in 1986, when he finished third in the three-way Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. ( Barbara Mikulski won the seat, which she still holds.) He had been tarnished by the savings and loan scandal and the perception that he didn't realize the depth of the problem soon enough.
But Hughes defends his handling of the crisis. "I'm sorry it ever happened, but I'm proud of the way we resolved the issue," he says. "Nobody lost a penny of their savings. They lost some interest, but everybody got all of their money back."
For Hughes, what mattered was not how the press portrayed him or the outcome of that 1986 Senate race, but that he did what he believed was right.\email@example.com
Copies of My Unexpected Journey are available through the Maryland State Archives for $36.99 each. Call 800-235-4045 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Credit card payments are accepted.\ Harry R. Hughes
Nov. 13, 1926, Easton
U.S. Navy Air Corps, WWII
House of Delegates, 1955-1959; State Senate, 1959-1970; first state secretary of transportation, 1970-1976; governor, 1979-1987
Wife, Patricia; two daughters; one grandson
Position on golf:
"Terrible game. You walk around, hit that little ball, and get angry at it."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun