Preston Hutchinson died from cancer just three days after Christmas 1968. He was a steelworker, a barroom owner, the married father of two sons and a member of the Maryland House of Delegates from blue-collar Essex in eastern Baltimore County. Democratic leaders appointed the younger of his sons to finish out his term. Donald P. Hutchinson had turned 23 on the day he buried his father, but he was not a political novice.
Three years earlier, he had been elected to serve as a delegate to Maryland’s constitutional convention from the county’s old 5th District. He was the youngest delegate there, and the debates over revisions to the state constitution fascinated him. “I decided I really wanted to build a career in government and politics,” he says. Mr. Hutchinson grew up in east side politics; his father’s bar had been a gathering place for Democratic politicians, most of them more conservative than the younger Mr. Hutchinson. “I saw politics from the inside at an early age,” he says, 50 years later. “I didn’t want to be part of the old school.”
For years, local government in Baltimore County had been marked by backroom deals and corruption, much of it exposed in the early 1970s with the federal indictments of two consecutive county executives. One of them, Spiro T. Agnew, had gone on to serve as Richard Nixon’s vice president. By the time Agnew resigned in disgrace and the Watergate scandal rocked the Nixon presidency, a reform movement swept the nation and reached Baltimore County. Mr. Hutchinson joined with other young reformers to challenge the Democratic machine in the county in 1974. He ran for state senate against a powerful incumbent, while newcomer Ted Venetoulis ran for county executive, asking voters to “throw the rascals out.” Both Mr. Hutchinson and Mr. Venetoulis won.
“The county at the time was perhaps the most powerful county in the state, with powerful senators who kind of ran the legislature,” Mr. Venetoulis says. “But the county was really kind of stuck in the backwash of corruption and the way it had operated for many years. Don was a major part of our reform movement.”
When Mr. Venetoulis chose to run for governor four years later, Mr. Hutchinson ran to succeed him in Towson. As a self-described “bricks and mortar county executive,” he brought a centrist and competent approach to governance, dealing with the issues of growth and changing social conditions — land use and the development of town centers, the location and management of landfills, the need to bring more women into leadership roles and racially integrate county government.
After his second term ended in 1986, Mr. Hutchinson became president of Maryland Economic Growth Associates, a private-sector development group that later merged with the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, becoming the Maryland Business Council. In 1993, the Greater Baltimore Committee made Mr. Hutchinson its president. “He’s a person who can deal with CEOs as an equal,” Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, said at the time. “He’s a suburban person, but with a demonstrated concern for the city, and for poor people. I think he’s a terrific choice.”
At the GBC, Mr. Hutchinson spent close to a decade trying to get business leaders and government officials from the city and counties to cooperate in promoting the region as a place to do business. The GBC pushed for more state funds for the city schools, construction of a football stadium for the new Baltimore Ravens and, toward the end of Mr. Hutchinson’s tenure, a new venue for Broadway shows to replace the bankrupt Mechanic Theater. “The Hippodrome was a GBC project,” Mr. Hutchinson says. “It started out as a $26 million project that ended up being a $63 million project.” Raising money to save and restore the dilapidated theater speaks to Mr. Hutchinson’s exceptional skills at lobbying and in leadership. The Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center opened for audiences in 2004. Three years later, Mr. Hutchinson’s lobbying, leadership and fix-it skills were again put to the test.
In 2007, after serving five years as president and CEO of SunTrust Bank, the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore called for help. The third oldest zoo in the country, it faced existential financial issues. Mr. Hutchinson was hired as president and CEO to conduct a rescue. “The zoo was about to lose its accreditation and we were within five to eight weeks of not making payroll,” he says. “I had 1,500 animals and needed people to come and take care of them. I thought we could sort it out with time.”
An important bridge loan from the Abell Foundation, some management changes, layoffs, restructuring and exhibit improvements got the zoo to a better place. “He really did save the zoo,” says Diane Hutchins, the institution’s vice president for governmental affairs who has known Mr. Hutchinson since the 1970s. “It’s a very different place from the place he took over, in every aspect. Financially it’s in much, much better shape. Physically it does not look like the same place. Don is very good at looking at issues and figuring out how to address them. That’s what he does.
“The man has done an awful lot for the region and the state,” says Ms. Hutchins. “He’s one of those elected officials who always wanted to do the right thing in the right way for the right purpose at the right time, and I think he’s carried that on in every job he’s had.”
Donald P. Hutchinson
Current residence: Timonium
Education: B.S. Frostburg State University; graduate studies, University of Maryland, College Park
Career highlights: Maryland delegate (1969-1974); Maryland senator (1974-1978); Baltimore County executive (1978-1986); president, Greater Baltimore Committee; president, SunTrust Bank of Maryland; president, Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, 2008-2020
Civic and charitable activities: Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas Commission; chair, Governor’s Commission on School Funding; campaign chair, United Way of Central Maryland; founding member, Beall Institute for Public Affairs, Frostburg State University
Family: Wife, Peggy; combined family of three children; three grandchildren.