Albert C. Ritchie, State House titan; Four-term governor: He dominated state politics and made Maryland government a model; MARYLANDERS OF THE CENTURY


NO politician before or since has dominated the Maryland political stage the way Albert C. Ritchie did over a 20-year period after World War I. He modernized state government so effectively that the Ritchie model is still in use today.

No Marylander has been a serious presidential candidate -- except Ritchie, who did it twice. No Marylander has been elected governor more than two terms -- ex-cept Ritchie, who did it four times.

Here's a measure of his popularity: At Ritchie's funeral in 1936, 31,000 people filed past the bier as his body lay in state for 24 hours; 1,000 guests jammed Christ Episcopal Church in downtown Baltimore, while 10,000 more stood out- side; thousands lined the route to Greenmount Cemetery, where an- other 10,000 people had gathered.

His death at age 59 was a national loss, wrote the New York Herald Tribune. The Washington Post eulogized Ritchie as a man of "courage, honesty, realism and intelligence." The New York Times called him "an administrator of large ability" who "made his state an example of good government... He had the strength of his convictions."

H. L. Mencken praised Ritchie's "extraordinary capacity for public administration" and his "immense skill at simplifying complicated and confusing problems, and a high degree of courage in resolving them."

Albert Cabell Ritchie, the scion of old Virginia and Maryland families, brought Maryland into the progressive era.

As a Baltimore lawyer, he pioneered the use of litigation to win lower gas and electricity rates. His fame made him an easy winner in 1915 as state attorney general, an office he revamped before taking time off to work as a protege to financier Bernard M. Baruch on the War Industries Board in Washington.

In 1919, he won his first term as governor by 165 votes, surviving a year of Republicans sweeps. The next three times, he was elected by landslides.

Ritchie created a statewide organization that was rarely challenged. His agenda proved enlightened and far-sighted.

He cut the size of state government from 85 agencies to 19 departments, implemented executive budgeting, put in place a merit system, simplified a profusion of state and local elections and set up a Central Purchasing Bureau.

Ritchie monitored expenses zealously, using the savings for tax cuts as well as for more roads, better facilities for the mentally ill and wayward juveniles and a broader workers compensation law.

Maryland's public schools, ranked among the nation's worst, were revamped. Ritchie tossed out inept school superintendents, raised teacher salaries and focused on secondary education -- unheard of back then. He was the first Maryland governor -- but not the last -- to create an equalization fund to help poorer school systems.

Yet Ritchie was a fervent conservative. He rose to national prominence in the 1920s defending states' rights. He felt that states were in far better position to handle social problems than the federal bureaucracy. Eighty years later, this remains a bedrock belief of conservatives.

He led the crusade against Prohibition, not because he loved liquor but because he didn't want Washington dictating to governors. Maryland, he told a succession of presidents, was perfectly capable of handling a coal strike, child labor abuses or the need for more education funds.

Twice his forthright conservatism made him a presidential contender. Franklin D. Roosevelt's campaign manager offered Ritchie the vice presidential spot in 1932, but Ritchie wisely rejected it because of the yawning philosophical gulf between himself and FDR. He proved to be a stern FDR critic.

The Depression, the popularity of the New Deal and the public's unease with a governor already 15 years in office led to Ritchie's defeat in 1934.

By then, his greatest contributions had long been achieved. Marylanders are still benefiting from the government reforms and health and education programs advanced by Albert Ritchie.

Pub Date: 7/22/99

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