Frank M. Conaway Sr. dies

“Godfather” of African-American politics in Baltimore dies at 81.

Frank M. Conaway Sr., a resilient and colorful politician who was the longtime clerk of the Baltimore City Circuit Court, has died in his sleep at his Northwest Baltimore home at age 81.

He was found unresponsive Sunday morning, said Hassan Giordano, his spokesman.

Mr. Conaway described himself as the "godfather" of African-American politics in Baltimore. He was the scion of a political dynasty. His wife, Mary Conaway, had been register of wills, a post now held by his daughter, Belinda Conaway. His son, Frank M. Conaway Jr. represents the 40th District in the Maryland House of Delegates.

"He loved the people, the process and the political arena," said his son. "He believed in working hard and making a decent living for himself and for his family."

Late last year, Mr. Conaway announced that he was switching political parties to become the city's first Republican office-holder since the 1960s.

"A truly dedicated public servant, he redefined what was possible for generations of African-Americans in Baltimore," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake.

"This month as we celebrate the heritage and diversity of the African-American experience, it is only fitting that we remember all that Frank accomplished," the mayor said in a statement. "Baltimore is stronger today thanks to his decades of selfless service."

"I sat across the table from Frank Conaway every month at Baltimore City's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council meeting," said U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein. "He was one of a kind. [He was] a man with strong opinions who was never reluctant to express them, but who greeted everyone with a smile."

A fixture in city politics since 1966, Mr. Conaway endured his share of controversy and an investigation into his insurance business. No charges were brought against him, but he sold the business, gave up his broker's license and filed for bankruptcy.

After making a comeback in 1998, after being out of office for nearly 16 years, he said, "People have faith in redemption. I am redeemed."

Observers said he loved seeing his name on a ballot or on billboards. In 2011, he ran as a Democrat for mayor, finishing fifth of six candidates in an election won by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Over the years, his billboards featured his smiling face and proclaimed, "You are in good hands with Frank Conaway." At times his billboards also promoted his insurance business.

"Frank was Frank. He had the common touch. He reminded me of the kind of politician that [Clarence] Du Burns and [William] Donald Schaefer were," said City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. "Nobody could campaign like Frank. You could meet him once in a supermarket and he became your best friend."

City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt said, "I am deeply saddened to know that my friend, Frank M. Conaway, Sr. has passed away. ...I had the pleasure of having numerous conversations with him on many topics, and he was always a good source of information.  He was a man who stood firm on his beliefs and was an advocate for the voiceless. We have lost a noble public servant whose work will never be forgotten." 

Born in Baltimore, he was a graduate of Frederick Douglass High School. After high school, he served in the Army, where he was a boxer. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Morgan State University in 1960.

Mr. Conaway became a math teacher at Booker T. Washington Junior High School. He soon joined the Prudential Insurance Co. and became a top-selling agent in the African-American community. Sun news stories described him as dressing in expensive suits, driving a Mercedes-Benz Gazelle and buying a large home in the Ashburton neighborhood. He was described as "flamboyant."

Mr. Conaway was schooled in urban politics by the late William L. "Little Willie" Adams, who ran the Metro Democratic Organization. Mr. Conaway was first elected to a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates in 1970. He served until 1975 and was a one-time chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. He lost his seat to redistricting in 1974.

He returned to the House of Delegates in 1979, but lost his seat in the 1982 primary. That election, he gave out dozens of smoke detectors.

A year later, he decided to take on Mayor William Donald Schaefer. He said that after Harold Washington was elected Chicago's first black mayor, "I have a renewed confidence in the political process."

He later dropped out of the race.

In February 1983 the state's attorney's office dropped a criminal investigation into charges that Mr. Conaway and his insurance firm had mishandled some $200,000 in premiums. The state said the case did not "warrant prosecution."

"Frank Conaway was a lion of Baltimore. He's been a man of integrity who fought for his principles even when he needed to challenge the establishment to do so," said Tom Maronick Jr., his attorney. "He never failed to back up the things he said. I guess that's why the voters re-elected him year after year. It's a tough loss."

He returned to public office in 1998 as clerk of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. He held the post at his death.

Articles published in The Sun in 1998 at the time of his swearing-in at the courthouse noted he had during his career been criticized for distributing campaign tokens — bread, butter and chickens during a re-election bid for his delegate seat.

"Conaway's victory in the September Democratic primary surprised court officials and political observers. He was not favored to win the nine-candidate race that was marked by aggressive campaigning. He took the seat with 22 percent of the vote," one 1998 Sun article said.

William A. Swisher, a former Baltimore state's attorney, said at the time, "It's a hell of a comeback from his history."

His comeback attempts were legendary. In 1990, he ran for sheriff of Baltimore on a "cowboy platform" to expand the powers of the office, which delivers subpoenas and handles courthouse security.

Mr. Conaway gave out photos of himself attired as a cowboy riding a rearing horse and referred to his campaign staff as the O.K. Corral.

When reporters asked him about his comeback, Mr. Conaway compared himself to Washington's late Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., who weathered drug charges and was re-elected mayor.

"People do come back, you know," Mr. Conaway said. "It can happen. Some people will kick you when you're down. Others will pick you up, dust you off and throw you back into the fight."

Plans for a funeral are incomplete.

In addition to his wife, son and daughter, survivors include another daughter, Monica, and three sisters.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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