ALMOST A THIRD of a century has passed since Maryland elected Spiro T. Agnew, its last Republican governor. Some political pundits are predicting that another Republican, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, will defeat Gov. Parris N. Glendening on Nov. 3.
The current gubernatorial race has me reflecting on 1966, when Agnew defeated George P. Mahoney, a Democrat. The campaigns are worthy of comparison not for their similarities but for their differences.
Sauerbrey, a conservative, reflects the Republicans' national agenda. Similarly, Glendening marches in step with the Democratic National Committee on virtually every key issue.
In 1966, things were different. Agnew ran as a liberal Republican, and Mahoney ran as a conservative Democrat who opposed open housing. Agnew bucked the rising tide of conservatism in the GOP and courted the black vote. Mahoney not only shunned the black vote, he hoped to exploit white backlash with his campaign slogan, "Your Home Is Your Castle - Protect It."
With Lyndon Johnson in the White House, the Democrats had pushed through the 1964 Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Mahoney was clearly out of sync with the liberal wing of his party.
Agnew, on the other hand, saw no future as a liberal Republican and jumped on Richard Nixon's bandwagon a couple years later. Agnew gained Nixon's attention by taking a hard line on the rioting that broke out in Baltimore after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King in 1968. Agnew's tough talk earned him the vice presidential spot on the ticket with Nixon.
In 1966, I was an editorialist for the archdiocesan newspaper, the Catholic Review. As I look back at Mahoney, I'm convinced that he was more of an opportunist than an outright racist. In 1964, Alabama Gov. George Wallace garnered close to 43 percent of the Democratic vote in Maryand's presidential primary. Two years later, Mahoney tried to tap the fear and anger of Wallace's supporters by running a campaign with racist overtones.
Mahoney was a wealthy paving contractor and a devout Catholic. He was a generous contributor to the archdiocese. Baltimore's Cardinal Lawrence Shehan had established a good record on racial issues, and many anti-Mahoneyites expected Shehan to repudiate Mahoney.
The cardinal, however, was planning a $13 million fund drive, and his advisers warned him to avoid controversy.
The cardinal had voiced his concern about my editorials criticizing the Vietnam war and supporting civil rights. As a result, I stopped writing editorials and began writing columns with my name and picture attached.
I knew that many Catholics who supported civil rights were chafed by the cardinal's silence on the Mahoney campaign. So, shortly before the 1966 election, I decided to write a personal column explaining why I couldn't vote for Mahoney. I did not say for whom I would vote.
I insisted that I was speaking only for myself. Indeed, the previous week, I had written that a vote for Mahoney was not necessarily a racist act - an observation that some anti-Mahoneyites labeled as disgusting.
To enable the cardinal to honestly deny knowledge of my column, I did not tell him about it before it ran. After it appeared, at a news conference to announce the fund drive, he was asked about the column. He said that I had the right to my own opinion, that he had made his racial views clear, and that clergy should generally abstain from politics.
In my column, using the title of a then-recent novel, I had said that Mahoney was the candidate of fear - "the devil's holy water." A few days later, Agnew said that Mahoney was satanic. I was gently blamed by the cardinal for that excess.
Over my protest, the paper ran a pro-Mahoney ad. Meanwhile, he was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. Some Mahoneyites wanted to take out an ad denouncing me in the Catholic Review, but it was decided that only one con and one pro letter would be published the following week. I personally received scores of very lively letters and phone calls.
On election night, one TV network declared Mahoney the victor, but in the end he lost by nearly 82,000 votes. His aides said the Catholics had let him down. (It should be noted that Hyman A. Pressman ran as an Independent and came in third with 88,370 votes.)
My actions led to a committee set up by the cardinal to devise new editorial rules that I knew I couldn't live with. So I renewed the offer of my resignation from the paper, which the cardinal had turned down months before, when he first wanted to limit my editorial freedom. This time the cardinal accepted.
As I warned the cardinal, the immediate announcement of my resignation aroused suspicions and generated news stories. To protect the cardinal, who was a good man struggling with conflicting values, I had to make subtle distinctions in my answers to reporters.
At that point, I had never met or talked to Agnew or Mahoney. A few years later, however, Mahoney recognized me in the men's lavatory at the Lyric Opera House during an intermission in "Rigoletto." Grabbing me by the lapels, he called me a rotten priest who had taken from him the thing he most wanted in life - to be governor.
I had no illusions that my views had any serious influence on the election, though apparently Mahoney did. For one thing, he lost big in Montgomery County, which is not Catholic Review territory. After the opera, he pointed me out to his wife, who told me she prayed nightly that I would end up in a very toasty place.
Of course, by the way of demonstrating "the ambiguity of moral choices," fate disappointed Mahoney and gave Maryland and the nation a disappointing Agnew.
Mahoney was 87 years old when he died in 1989.
He ran for elective office 13 times - including five tries for governor - and failed each time.
Joseph Gallagher is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Pub Date: 10/18/98