Richard Coggins, active in politics, dies


Richard K. Coggins, a chieftain in Baltimore's Democratic political machinery for half a century, died Tuesday night at the Edenwald retirement community in Towson. He was 85.

He had been in a coma since mid-May after undergoing heart surgery.

Mr. Coggins, the erstwhile junior partner of the once-powerful Coggins-O'Malley political organization in Northeast Baltimore, headed the Maryland Injured Workers' Insurance Fund (once the State Accident Fund) from its creation in 1945 until his retirement in 1978. He continued on the fund's board after retirement and served on the board of the State Employees Credit Union, where he was president from 1974 to 1988.

But since the 1930s, he was best known as a behind-the-scenes player in precinct, ward and citywide politics whose power often reached beyond Baltimore's boundaries to the State House and Capitol Hill.

He was among the city's last political leaders whose influence spanned decades, back to an era when clubhouse politics was a way of life for many in Baltimore.

Like other bosses of his time, Mr. Coggins spent his career backing candidates, winning elections, finding jobs and doing favors for those who could be counted on to vote "the right way," while, of course, protecting the organization.

"He was a real gentleman from the old school," said Frank X. Gallagher, the former City Council president who was aligned with Mr. Coggins from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s. "He was the kind of guy who if you spent a lot of time with, you'd ask, 'Geez, what's he doing in politics?' "

Mr. Coggins was born in Baltimore and lived for years with his family at 2841 Greenmount Ave., in the shadow of old Oriole Park -- an experience that inspired a lifelong love of baseball.

He was educated in city public schools and attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

But Mr. Coggins soon became active in precinct politics. In 1936, he took a patronage job as a deputy clerk in the old Superior Court of Baltimore City.

A true Democratic organization man, Mr. Coggins toiled in Northeast Baltimore's 9th Ward as captain of the 8th Precinct. His labors were rewarded in 1938, when the veteran Democratic boss, George N. Lewis, stepped down and picked him as successor to run the 9th Ward's machine.

At the time, Patrick F. O'Malley was the undisputed leader of the entire 3rd Legislative District -- once the largest in the state, encompassing a third of the city -- and headed a rival camp.

The turning point in the Coggins-O'Malley political rivalry was the 1938 gubernatorial election in which Mr. O'Malley's pick was defeated by Herbert R. O'Conor, who was backed by Mr. Coggins.

After that race, Mr. Coggins and Mr. O'Malley buried the hatchet and forged a partnership that endured for decades. They were rarely apart at political events and their names seemed to merge over time to become one.

A newcomer to Baltimore, in fact, once asked a reporter, "Just exactly who is this Mr. Coggins-O'Malley?" Simply, they had become "the man to see" in the 3rd District.

The machine flourished, did battle over candidates with other city bosses -- such as the late James H. "Jack" Pollack and Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. -- struck alliances for the good of the party, and then broke them apart again.

For years, the organization managed a string of political victories. Though the two men never held elective office, from the 1940s on, Coggins-O'Malley men and women became entrenched in Baltimore courthouse jobs and on the bench, and in state offices. Many of them, not surprisingly, had Irish surnames.

Under the banner of the Coggins-O'Malley Regular 3rd District Democratic Club, the organization until the early 1970s sponsored annual dances, crab feasts, oyster roasts and an annual "convention" in Ocean City -- where hundreds of loyalists would gather.

"Both Dick and Pat O'Malley were people who had a lot of friends, of course, and that was their power," said Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who over the years ran both with and against Coggins-O'Malley. "That's how they had this great organization -- because they had all these people with jobs.

"They knew a lot of people, and they were able to convince their neighbors and friends and co-workers to vote for the ticket," Mr. Curran said. "They all lived in the same neighborhood, went to the same church, were all in the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick."

Though they made their decisions together, each man had his role in the organization, with Mr. O'Malley being the more visible of the two. Mr. Coggins -- a tall, thin, quiet man -- was the careful, stickler for detail.

Shortly before Mr. O'Malley's death in 1967, Mr. Gallagher joined forces with Mr. Coggins and the organization became known as the Coggins-Gallagher organization, which operated through the 1987 city elections.

Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, the 3rd District councilman who was backed by Coggins-Gallagher in 1987, the first time he ran, praised Mr. Coggins' acceptance of the transition from machine politics to the more inclusive community-based politics of today.

"Even though he would be considered a dinosaur as the leader and chief practitioner of machine politics, he saw the changes in the city and truly understood them," said Mr. Cunningham, who had become the third name on the organization -- Coggins-Gallagher-Cunningham -- by the time it stopped holding its annual bull roast five years ago.

Known affectionately among public employees and legislators as State Accident Fund," Mr. Coggins was superintendent of the agency for 33 years, after being named its first head in 1945 by Governor O'Conor.

His name and the accident fund were so synonymous that in 1991, when the agency's new four-story headquarters at 8722 Loch Raven Blvd. was dedicated, it was named The Richard K. Coggins Building.

Mr. Coggins' wife of 35 years, the former Edna F. Bryner, died in 1985.

Services for Mr. Coggins will be 9 a.m. Saturday at Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road.

He is survived by two nephews, Robert L. Coggins of Baltimore and Richard M. Coggins of Parkville.

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