The legendary Harry McGuirk


Maryland politics without Harry J. McGuirk? It's sad and hard to believe. His wonderful flair disappeared from the State House hallways with his death Monday at age 68. A living legend has now departed from the scene of his greatest triumphs.

Harry McGuirk was an insider's insider. His forte: a legislative deal so complex and so convoluted that only Mr. McGuirk knew all the nuances. Though not a lawyer, he was a better bill draftsman than the staff professionals. He was a better deal-maker than just about anyone, too. And he could do it all with such skill and gentlemanly sophistication that even his opponents marveled at his talents and his courtesy.

He took care of his constituents in South Baltimore -- and his friends throughout the state. The stories are legion of Mr. McGuirk quietly making some phone calls to assist a family without heat, or an individual whose insurance had been canceled. He did it while in office, and after he left office. If someone needed help, Mr. McGuirk would jump in, often anonymously.

For 32 years, Harry McGuirk was a fixture at the State House, first as an elected delegate for seven years, then as a state senator for 15 years, a lobbyist for City Hall and an assistant to Gov. William Donald Schaefer. He never lost his knack for shaping legislation behind the scenes in a way that was so quietly successful that it reminded some of his colleagues of a ballroom dance. That's why they called him "Soft Shoes."

He pulled political strings at City Hall, too. As the power behind the Stonewall Democratic Club in South Baltimore, Mr. McGuirk called the shots for the City Council's 6th District delegation for several decades. He was never heavy-handed or mean-spirited. But he usually got what he wanted.

As the longtime chairman of the Senate Economic Affairs Committee, Mr. McGuirk dominated the chamber through his attention to legislative detail that others ignored and his stupendous grasp of all that passed through his committee. On the Senate floor, he would often spot a technical flaw in a bill that no one else had noticed. At the same time, a McGuirk amendment was immediately suspect because of his skill at adding nuances that wouldn't became apparent until days -- or years -- later.

What a loss for political Maryland! Harry McGuirk represented an old-fashioned brand of public service that is fast disappearing. To the end, he remained in the thick of things in the State House, trying to help ordinary citizens, his friends and his governor. He will be sorely missed, but he had long ago sealed his reputation as the legendary Harry McGuirk.

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