A sorry state


People today are saying that Gov. Parris N. Glendening's attacks on Comptroller William Donald Schaefer hit a new low in Maryland politics. Well, hardly; they barely scratch the surface. Maryland's low points have been downright subterranean.

Maryland, after all, gave the nation Spiro T. Agnew, the only vice president to resign from office on charges of corruption. Agnew, elected with Richard M. Nixon in 1968 and 1972, pleaded no contest to a federal charge of income tax evasion after he was accused of taking bribes as Baltimore County executive and governor of Maryland. He resigned in 1973 and retired to Palm Springs, Calif., to become a front man for Middle East oil magnates.

Agnew, incidentally, was thought of as a progressive candidate when he ran for governor in 1966. His Democratic opponent, George P. Mahoney, a perennial candidate who had lost several races, ran a one-note campaign with the still-infamous slogan "Your Home is Your Castle - Protect It," a not-very-subtle appeal to white supremacy during the troubled 1960s.

Of all the state's governors, Marvin Mandel, who succeeded Agnew in 1969, seems to have been the only one actually to have gone to jail. He spent 19 months in federal prison in Florida after being convicted of mail fraud and racketeering in 1977. The charges were based on the complicated financial arrangements Mandel made when he dumped his wife for the woman he loved (and later married). President Reagan pardoned Mandel in 1981, and the U.S. Supreme Court later reversed Mandel's conviction. He's generally respected in Maryland these days as an aging sage.

During these same years, busy federal prosecutors "briskly," as Evening Sun political writer Bradford Jacobs put it, tried, convicted and jailed Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson and Anne Arundel County Executive Joseph Alton. They were charged with taking bribes and kickbacks in what seemed to be becoming a Maryland tradition.

Dirty politics are historically intrinsic to Baltimore. The city wasn't called Mobtown for nothing. Baltimore was a great center for the anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant "Know Nothing" Native American party before the Civil War. The Know Nothings once besieged a nunnery in East Baltimore, for heaven's sake.

Through most of the 1850s, elections in Baltimore were settled by street-fighting gangs with names like the Plug Uglies, Red Necks and Blood Tubs - and free-flowing booze in the taverns. Robert J. Brugger, in his book Maryland, A Middle Temperament, recounts that during the 1856 mayoral election, pitched battles between Know Nothings and Irish Democrats left four dead and 50 more or less dangerously wounded. Know Nothing Thomas W. Swann was elected mayor and went on to become governor at the end of the Civil War.

During the presidential election of 1856, won by Democrat James Buchanan of Lancaster, Pa., somebody started firing a cannon during a riot in Baltimore and killed 10 people, wounding 250.

Nearly a century later, at the height of the McCarthy era in 1950, sleaze took a sharp right turn during the U.S. Senate race between the incumbent Democrat, Millard E. Tydings of Havre de Grace, and his Republican challenger, Baltimore lawyer John Marshall Butler.

Tydings was perhaps more conservative than his opponent, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt had tried to oust him from the Senate in the 1930s because of his opposition to the New Deal. But in 1950, Tydings headed a Senate committee that investigated Wisconsin Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's contention that the State Department was riddled with communists.

The Tydings committee called the charges a fraud and a hoax and criticized McCarthy for wasting the Senate's time during a crucial period of the Cold War.

Tydings looked like a sure winner for re-election until being called soft on communism and hard on McCarthy.

On election eve, Brugger says in his book, a fake tabloid newspaper appeared with a fake picture of Tydings looking chummy with Earl Browder, the leader of the American Communist Party. Tydings lost handily.

Fake newspapers, or broadsheets, or election day pamphlets, were routine in Baltimore politics. And so were name's-the-same candidates. If a Dombroski or Bertorelli filed in East Baltimore's Fightin' First District, a Dembrowski or a Bertolini would soon be running, too. When the Young Men's Bohemian Club was a political power, in one particularly virulent race a candidate stole the opposition's mail bag right off a loading dock at the post office.

Marylanders have mostly been quite tolerant of the romantic foibles of elected officials like Mandel. Hardly an eyebrow was raised when Schaefer lived in the governor's mansion in Annapolis with his First Friend without benefit of matrimony.

But U.S. Rep. Robert Bauman's penchant for young men failed to please his Eastern Shore constituents in 1980, and they dismissed him from Congress.

In Baltimore, The Block often enticed politicians in city, state and national office to surprising peccadilloes. In those bad old days, strippers would appear at political rallies and, it's said, occasionally on the gubernatorial yacht. The Block provided the Argentine Firecracker, Fanne Foxe, with whom Arkansas Congressman Wilbur Mills was caught carousing unsteadily in the Tidal Pool in Washington. That mischance cost him his job as a chairman of the mighty House Ways and Means Committee and eventually his seat in Congress.

Jack Pollack, one of Baltimore's last really powerful political bosses, mined The Block for money to fund his machinations. Pollack's Trenton Democratic Club ran annual dances and extracted funds from Block club owners by selling them ads in the dance program. He once taped himself bargaining for judicial appointments with Gov. J. Millard Tawes - who, hearing of the tape, said, hey, it's not me.

Stout, smart, jovial Walter Orlinsky, president of Baltimore's City Council when Schaefer was mayor, was thought a paragon of honesty until he was busted for taking bulging white envelopes all but openly in Little Italy restaurants.

In 1982, he pleaded guilty to taking a bribe from a sludge dealer. He served 4 1/2 months of a six-month sentence, and he received a pardon from President Clinton. He sought redemption in a lot of ways for the rest of his life, but never seemed quite to find it.

Those were the days when more than one politician who was caught buying votes or selling a few contracts was apt to say in his defense: "That's how things have always been done in Maryland."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad