Harry Hughes' 90th birthday reminds attendees what the country has lost

An impressive group of veteran Maryland political leaders gathered in Easton a couple weeks before Thanksgiving to celebrate former Maryland Gov. Harry R. Hughes' 90th birthday. Although the heartfelt tributes to Governor Hughes' life and career could not have been more sincere, the evening seemed tinged with an unmistakable and heartbreaking recognition of what we as American citizens have lost in our just concluded presidential election.

Governor Hughes was rightfully praised for championing the protection of the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland's environment more broadly; for his steady, bipartisan stewardship of the state's fiscal affairs during a period of severe budget cuts from Washington; for his principled support for the constitutional concept of separation of powers; and for his early recognition of the evil inherent in racial and religious hate crimes. Faced with the stark reality of federal budget reductions under Ronald Reagan that tore away the safety net for America's most vulnerable citizens, Governor Hughes forged a bi-partisan agreement with the General Assembly to use state dollars to continue the most important services threatened by the federal cuts.


But to those in the birthday party audience of about 100, those were not the most meaningful — or even the most relevant — words used to describe Harry Hughes.

The more important words that were uttered throughout the evening by a half dozen different speakers were the ones that described the values that this native of the Eastern Shore brought to Maryland's political life: honesty, integrity, fairness, compassion, humility and restraint.


In a word, civility.

This was a politically attuned audience. It included a pair of former U.S. senators from Maryland; Maryland's attorney general and at least two of his predecessors; a former Maryland governor and a former Maryland first lady; a current high-ranking member of Congress; a sizable group of former state legislators, Democratic and Republican alike; several judges; former cabinet secretaries, appointees and staff from the Hughes' administration; several prominent environmental leaders; and even a couple of retired state troopers who once proudly served on the governor's security detail. To this group, the contrast between the decency of Governor Hughes and the indecency of the campaign run by our new president-elect could not have been more stark.

The celebration was even momentarily interrupted by a telephone call from the vice president of the United States, who just wanted to wish the governor a happy birthday — one decent man taking the time to send good wishes to another decent man.

Just as our president-elect won in an upset two weeks ago, so Harry Hughes won the governorship in an upset in 1978. Three weeks before the September 1978 primary, Harry Hughes' campaign hovered at 4 percent of the vote, hopelessly trailing Acting Governor Blair Lee III, whose campaign had nearly 40 percent of the vote in a four-way race. But thanks in large part to the strong endorsement by both The Baltimore Sun and the Evening Sun, voters were reassured that it was safe to vote for the man who had resigned as state secretary of transportation rather than go along with a subway contract he feared was corrupt. Mr. Hughes roared from behind to beat Lee, Theodore Venetoulis and Wally Orlinsky in that fabled primary and went on to easily win the November general election and then re-election four years later.

But winning an upset election is the only comparison that can be made between Maryland's former governor and our nation's president-elect .

Given the mean-spirited, rude, racist, lewd, crude, insulting and lying behavior our country has witnessed and endured over the past two years, it is hard to imagine when or whether we will ever see such a fine and decent political leader as Harry Roe Hughes come our way again.

Marylanders were lucky to have a man of Harry Hughes' character to be a state legislator, cabinet secretary and governor. Those of us who know him are lucky to have him as a friend.

Our country can only hope that someday we may have a man or woman with such qualities and civility to become our president.


John W. Frece, who retired in 2014 from the U.S. EPA, is a former State House bureau chief for The Baltimore Sun and co-author of Gov. Hughes' autobiography, "My Unexpected Journey" (History Press, 2006). His email is