In 1978, The Sun endorsed a dark horse — and helped him become governor

In the 10 years leading up to 1978, Maryland had seen two governors come and go…and go in spectacular fashion. Sprio Agnew had been elected vice president, then resigned five years later in the wake of a bribery scandal that ended in tax evasion charges. His successor in Annapolis, Marvin Mandel, stepped down after being convicted of mail fraud and racketeering.

Maryland politics was in a bit of (understandable) turmoil, and now voters were being asked to choose their candidates for governor. With some luck, they would pick candidates who at least could avoid going to jail while they were in office.

That, clearly, was one of the concerns of the editorial writers for The Evening Sun. On Aug. 21, 1978, three weeks before the Sept. 12 primary, the paper offered its readers a couple of surprises. First, it didn’t endorse either of the early frontrunners in the Democratic primary, incumbent Blair Lee III, Mandel’s lieutenant governor and successor, or one-term Baltimore County Executive Ted Venetoulis. The paper didn’t even endorse City Council President Walter Orlinsky. Instead, it put its weight behind a decidedly dark-horse candidate, state transportation secretary Harry R. Hughes.

And secondly, it put the accompanying editorial not on the editorial page, as was customary, but on the front page, where no one could miss it. Clearly, the paper was looking to put some extra zing in Hughes’ candidacy.

“It is argued by political professionals that none but votes for Mr. Lee or Mr. Venetoulis…will be effective in this Democratic contest,” the endorsement read. “We doubt that and, because we doubt it, the Evening Sun offers its case two weeks earlier than usual.

“A vote for the right man is never wrong.”

The 11 paragraphs that preceded that call-to-arms suggest how weary Maryland had become with the aura of dishonesty that seemed to permeate its politics. They suggested the coming election was a chance “to bring at least some fresh air to the stifling scene at Annapolis.” They called for a “political purge.” They complained of “unofficial pulse-takers” who had convinced the Democratic electorate that voting for anyone other than Lee or Venetoulis would be a waste.

And they slammed the three perceived frontrunners. Lee was labelled a “mediocrity, all but incapable of rising to the challenge of change.” They called both Venetoulis and Orlinsky “politically half-grown.” The county executive, they said, was “adept at catching and holding attention upon himself,” but was not a “proven administrator.” And the council president was “a fountain of governmental ideas, most of which blow away on the August breeze.” Plus, they sniffed, “executive responsibility has never burdened the Orlinsky hands.”

Hughes, a former delegate and state senator from the Eastern Shore, was praised mightily. He was “what racing writers call the class of the field…a proven leader on both the two broad avenues a governor must travel, legislative and executive.” And most important, the endorsement said, he was an honest man, who even as a member of the Mandel administration had displayed a functioning moral compass. “The Hughes career breathes political independence and personal integrity,” it proclaimed. “It leads naturally to this moment.”

Not everyone was pleased, of course. Some wags started referring to Hughes as “the Son of Sun,” according to a Sept. 13, 1978, article in the Washington Post, while Venetoulis’ campaign manager called Hughes “nothing more than a figment of the Sun’s imagination.”

But the Evening Sun’s ringing endorsement – along with the morning Sun’s, which had appeared the previous day, no less enthusiastic but on the customary editorial page – did as was intended. The Hughes campaign caught fire, and on election night, he emerged the winner with 37 percent of the vote, compared to 34 percent for Lee, 24.5 percent for Venetoulis and just over 4 percent for Orlinsky.

That momentum carried over to November, when Hughes won the governorship over the GOP candidate, former U.S. Senator J. Glenn Beall Jr., 71 to 29 percent.

As for this year’s primaries, set for June 26: It’s unlikely any of the Baltimore Sun’s endorsements will appear on the paper’s front page.

ckaltenbach@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskaltsun

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