McGuirk May Have Been the Last of the Old-Style Political Bosses


Harry McGuirk is dead. So is his political organization.

Yet Senator McGuirk's clubhouse still stands: the Stonewall Democratic Club at 1212 South Charles St. in South Baltimore. It is the oldest political club in the state -- dating from 1866 -- and one of the last functioning political clubs in a city that not long ago boasted dozens of them. In the entryway, there are large twin portraits of Stonewall Jackson and (who else?) Harry McGuirk, with his signature hairdo resembling a bowl of whipped egg whites.

Today, Stonewall's politics are mainly past tense. In the old days, when power was power, Reps. . Sam Friedel, George Fallon and Edward Garmatz, three of the most powerful committee chairman in the House of Representatives, would linger after club meetings at Stonewall for a friendly game of poker.

In years gone by, Mr. McGuirk and Stonewall could put several hundred double-knitters on the streets on election day. But death and disinterest have thinned the ranks of loyalists. So, too, has steady employment. A person making a decent wage isn't going to take a day off of work to earn $25 for spending 12 hours on a street corner as a poll worker.

Political obituaries often risk becoming exercises in taxidermy. Times change. People change. Political machines are deader than pterodactyls. Mr. McGuirk's death last week of a heart attack brings to near-completion the phase-out of machine politics on a grand scale.

In recent years, Mr. McGuirk, a long-time state Senator and recently a trouble-shooter for Gov. William Donald Schaefer, was pre-deceased by political strongmen such as James H. "Jack" Pollack, William "Sweetie" Adelson, George H. Hocker and Irv Kovens, along with district bosslets such as J. Joseph Curran Sr., Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., State Sen. Joseph Bonvegna, George Hofferbert, State Sen. Joseph Stazack, Hugo Riscuitti, Julian "Chicken" Carrick, Patrick O'Malley, State Sen. William "Bip" Hodges and a long list of others.

Harry McGuirk has a mind that would have been envied in a Medici palace. Yet for all his vaunted skills as a legislative wizard, political suzerain and artful schmoozer, he was never able to break out of the Sixth District or rise above the level of a Moco Yardley cartoon character labeled "1/6 boss."

He had the talent. He had the respect of his peers. He had the opportunity. But somehow his wheeler-dealer image and the velocity of political change capped his career at the level of a lovable Muldoon and a clubhouse apparatchik -- far from the courtly and sophisticated Ivy Leaguer (Cornell) that he was.

Today, Stonewall is more a social club than a political force. In an earlier time, urban political organizations functioned as social welfare agencies. Their strength and membership were built around the newly-arrived immigrants, and the clubs supplied legal advice, food, buckets of coal and patronage jobs. To the end, Harry McGuirk clung to the quaint traditional notion that political clubs existed to help people.

But the death-knell for organization politics began with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, as government agencies started to assume the social-work functions which had been performed by the machines.

A second blow was administered in the 1960s by community organizations supported by federal grants, as well as court-ordered reapportionment, which mandated territorial breakups every 10 years as new census figures caused the squiggles on the map to be rearranged.

Today, for practical political purposes, the Sixth District of Harry McGuirk no longer exists. Because of the recent roundelay of redistricting, the Stonewall clubhouse is in the First District. Another patch of its former turf is in a legislative district lying mostly in Anne Arundel County. Still, there are those who argue that the splintering of the district actually strengthened Stonewall by immersing it in the affairs of several districts.

The conventional wisdom is that television has replaced the political machine. As tubes were substituted for boobs, the "walk-around money" that used to pay members of political clubsinstead winds up in the paychecks of people that sell television advertising.

Along with television, the breakdown of the network of political clubs has been hastened by the mobility in society. Stability within neighborhoods, and the stability of alliances among neighborhoods to form organizations, diminished.

Add to the list of bad breaks the fact that political patronage -- the system of rewards and punishments -- is also greatly reduced, through home-grown reforms and court-ordered changes in the way business is done. As an example, Stonewall has been unable to arrange a judgeship for Councilman Timothy Murphy. The roster of jobs available from the court house to the State House -- and every level in between -- has become virtually extinct.

To the extent that Stonewall and a few other clubs have survived, they have done so more by superimposing themselves onto community organizations rather than through the traditional district politics. Stonewall, for example, attached itself to the numerous neighborhood organizations which make up the Coalition of Peninsula Organizations (COPO).

In some ways, Stonewall was the embodiment of the dinosaur; an organization with enough xenophobia to undertake to keep itself isolated within its own district. Stonewall exists in one of the poorest sections of the city, yet it failed until recently to deal with the issue of black representation. Moreover, Stonewall used its political muscle in zoning in a series of unsuccessful attempts to keep newcomers (yuppies) out of the district because it was assumed (correctly) that the parvenu interlopers wouldn't follow the Stonewall line. And, following standard organization practice, Stonewall's election-day tactic was to control electoral outcomes by keeping the voter turnout down.

When Harry McGuirk and the other bosses died, they left an estate of functions which is unlikely to be claimed. At this juncture, Maryland and Baltimore politics lack a central intelligence. And given the new independence of the electorate, it is unlikely -- at least for the foreseeable future -- that any one person or group of persons will ever again control the political process as they did in the past.

To be sure, there are political operatives who still qualify for the title of "boss," but there's a new kind of bossism that has replaced delivering votes -- raising money.

One candidate is Maurice Wyatt, who had done much of Mr. Kovens' legwork. He learned his politics from his father, the front end of the hyphen in the Sixth District's old Wyatt-Della faction. After sharpening his skills on the U.S. Senate staff of Daniel Brewster, he went on to become patronage boss for former Gov. Marvin Mandel. A trusted ambassador to the precincts for both Mr. Mandel and Mr. Kovens, Mr. Wyatt is still a formidable fund-raiser. He is also a lobbyist in Annapolis with close ties to Governor Schaefer and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell.

Mr. Wyatt and State Sen. George W. Della Jr. are partners in politics. Mr. McGuirk ran the political club bequeathed by their fathers. Together with Del. Paul Weisengoff, the South Baltimore trio is as cunning and canny and anyone in Maryland politics.

And let's not forget John Paterakis, impresario of the hamburger bun and owner of H & S Bakery. Like Mr. Kovens, he is a formidable fund-raiser. But unlike Mr. Kovens, Mr. Paterakis avoids the spotlight. He has one foot in City Hall and the other in the State House, but he lacks the statewide network of satellite organizations that Mr. Kovens had.

Then there is lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who provides as much money for campaigns as anyone in Maryland through his own political action committees. His fund-raising ability supplies him with an abundance of statewide synergism, a convenient coming-together of candidates and causes through his State House connections.

Another fund-raising network centers on Mr. Schaefer's old Harborplace and gun control referendum gang, including James Smith, Richard Berndt and Robert Hillman.

Finally, the closest thing to a political boss that exists in Baltimore today is Larry Gibson, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's backstage adviser and campaign manager. Mr. Gibson's limitation is that his agenda is narrow, and he has no reach beyond Baltimore's black precincts and City Hall.

The next great test of Baltimore's disintegrating political power centers comes in 1994. William Donald Schaefer is a lame duck. The city's political strength, both in terms of voter turnout and representation in Annapolis, is slipping away to the suburbs.

Stonewall's next meeting is scheduled for May 6. It's likely than Senator Della, vice-president and heir apparent, will be elected to assume the club presidency held by his own father and by Mr. McGuirk.

The question is: What will Mr. Della be boss of? The Stonewall Democratic Club is a munificent gesture in a pauper's will.

Frank DeFilippo writes a column on politics for The Evening Sun.

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