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Harry Hughes: a 'brilliant gentleman'

During his two terms as Maryland’s 57th governor, from 1979 to 1987, Harry Hughes enhanced civility, integrity and prudence in state government leadership. Elevating Maryland’s political culture and public discourse at a difficult period in our state’s history, Governor Hughes reinforced the value and credibility of public service.

He was a much-understated politician and became successful, in part, because he frequently didn’t act like one. He had an ability to bring together in a civil atmosphere opposing parties on difficult issues acting as a calming voice of moderation in sometimes trouble waters.

Always measured in his discussions with others, Governor Hughes, a Democrat, was sometimes self-effacing about his own political assets. Early in his September 1978 campaign, he couldn’t understand why I, as his campaign manager, was so interested in locating early photographs of him in his World War II Naval Air Corps uniform, playing the trumpet at the University of Maryland or in his baseball uniform after signing with the Eastern Shore farm team of the New York Yankees. The fact that he had the “central casting” looks of a presidential candidate didn’t hurt either.

One of his first campaign events, a full year before the 1978 primary, was going to the Carroll County Fair. No sooner were we there than Harry sequestered himself in the back of the Democratic Central Committee tent where he talked for over an hour with two elderly ladies while his most flamboyant opponent was in the middle of the fairway at the height of the crowd surrounded by enthusiastic campaign workers with bull horns, literature, buttons and balloons and posing for photographs. We had a long way to go!

For more punishment he went back a month later as a guest of the Carroll County Republican Club with its rural constituency. Largely a senior group, he agreed to defend the controversial Baltimore subway system proposal. Polite, but hostile, fire opened up from all sides of the room. Harry listened, kept his poker-face eye contact, heard out everyone. Then, he quietly and methodically addressed each objection without giving offense, but keeping his remarks rational and impartial. It may not have won everyone over, but they all respected his position and many said so to him after the “interrogation.”

Governor Hughes was perhaps a more brilliant listener than public speaker, recognizing that more is to be learned by hearing the perspectives of others. He had a genuine confidence in ordinary citizens to participate productively in the government process and was never one to interrupt regardless of the sentiments expressed. His view of major decisions was circumspect, a strategy of assessing long-term consequences rather than short-term political benefits.

His public and private composure was always dignified; he was not one to squabble in political babble as he felt that issues could be resolved when openly discussed in an atmosphere of logic, facts and honesty. His words were of value. Being dispassionate when strategizing public policy, he may have been seen by some as hesitant, but his energy and focus were on the goal at hand and not compulsively reacting to emotions or political pressure.

Governor Hughes never lost his temper or more than mildly elevated his voice even under the most stressed moments. Certainly not to curse. He mentioned his mother’s observation that unsavory language was a reflection of an inadequate vocabulary.

By doing his budget and policy homework as a delegate, senator and secretary of transportation, he led from knowledge and experience. By being intimately familiar with the state fiscal process, he occasionally, but politely, corrected top level bureaucrats. Legislation he sponsored and supported was meaningful and served as broad a spectrum of our citizenry as possible.

What did disappoint him was the impulse of some to take advantage of and profit unfairly, as with those involved in the saving and loan scandals that occupied his last tumultuous year in office. Perhaps his confidence was in some instances misplaced, but he worked tirelessly, hands-on, 18 hours a day for months to solve the crisis.

Governor Hughes had simple needs and did not relish or flaunt the perks of the governor’s office. In the late afternoon of his swearing in, a huge, new shiny black limo, loaded with all the communications and security gear possible, appeared at the back door of the State House. It had been the custom of a local car dealership to supply such a vehicle to each new governor. As curious as anyone, he went down to look at it, and after he took a short ride around State Circle looking uncomfortable the entire time, the car soon found itself back at the dealership.

Governor Hughes was not a complicated man but simply a brilliant gentleman with an unassuming intellect and high standards of integrity. He reflected a civility and gentility that is largely missing today but would be welcomed back by the body politic.

Joseph M. Coale (jcoale@comcast.net) served as campaign manager for Harry Hughes in 1978 and 1982. While on the governor’s staff he was liaison with the Department of Economic and Community Development.

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