In '78, one doozy of an election


ONE OF Maryland's most remarkable Democratic primaries was in 1978. It was an election of stunning surprise, and it raised again the question of the power of the press -- and the power of the political poll.

Shortly after 8 that night, Sept. 12, 1978, Harry Hughes' campaign manager, Joseph M. Coale, barged into Hughes' suite at the Lord Baltimore Hotel. Hughes was relaxing with his feet on the bed. He had been a long shot from the beginning. He assumed the Democratic nomination (which was all that counted in heavily Democratic Maryland) would go to the odds-on favorite, Blair Lee III, the former lieutenant governor who had been acting governor since the fall from grace of Marvin Mandel. Ted Venetoulis, the outgoing Baltimore County executive, was given an outside chance, and Walter S. Orlinsky, the Baltimore City Council president, was way back in the pack with Hughes.

"I'm glad it's over," Hughes was about to say, but Coale showed him returns from a precinct in Bel Air. It showed Hughes with a 3-to-1 lead over Lee. How could Hughes be ahead of Lee in even one precinct in Maryland? Lee was the scion of an old and wealthy Maryland family; he had served ably as lieutenant governor; he had taken over the reins competently enough after Mandel was forced to step down; he had the backing -- and the heavy money -- of Maryland's Democratic political establishment. Of the Hughes campaign, Harry McGuirk, the consummate South Baltimore pol and Democratic major-domo, had observed: "It's a lost ball in tall grass."

Strange things had been happening, though. For one thing, The Sun and Evening Sun unexpectedly had endorsed Hughes early on. And on the Sunday before the primary, a Sun poll showed Hughes still behind but closing fast. (A frustrated Venetoulis tried to make a case that there was a connection between the poll and the endorsement. The papers denied it, but it was too late.) Orlinsky was to say later that there was a felt need for reform among Maryland Democrats, and Hughes came to be seen as the reform candidate. For whatever reason, momentum clearly had shifted.

But back to Sept. 12. A stunned Venetoulis, conceding defeat, told his supporters at the Pikesville Hilton, "I'm going back to my books, my teaching and my writing."

Over at Martin's West, Lee made a halting farewell speech to his troops. "A funny thing happened on the way to the State House. I was running a pretty good race. I was looking sideways at Venetoulis and all of sudden I looked out front and there was Harry."

At his storefront headquarters at 1100 Cathedral St., Orlinsky declared, "If I hadn't voted for myself, I would have voted for Hughes."

The final tally: Hughes, 210,263; Lee, 190,303; Venetoulis, 136,925; Orlinsky, 24,669.

Where are they today? Lee lost a long fight with cancer in 1985. Venetoulis became a media mogul and occasional political commentator for TV. Orlinsky spent some time in prison and now heads Maryland's tree-planting program. Hughes served two quiet terms as governor and returned to lawyering in Baltimore. Of the three candidates from that election 13 years ago who are still with us, Hughes is the least visible; he's back to being a lost ball in tall grass.

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