Former Governor Harry Hughes was a man of integrity when Maryland needed it the most - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Former Governor Harry Hughes was a man of integrity when Maryland needed it the most

BALTIMORE – Harry Hughes, who died Wednesday, at 92, became governor of Maryland when the Free State seemed to lead the country in political corruption, and he set an example that said, Enough is enough.

When he was elected in 1978, Maryland had just given the world its former governor, Spiro Agnew, who then became the only vice president in history to resign in disgrace. We had the next governor, Marvin Mandel, who went off to prison. And the Baltimore County Executive, Dale Anderson, and the Anne Arundel County Executive, Joseph Alton, wound up rooming together in yet another prison after yet another round of political corruption. And there was a state delegate, James A. (Turk) Scott, indicted for allegedly smuggling $10 million worth of heroin, who was shot to death before he could stand trial.

And then came Hughes.

He came out of Denton, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, played trumpet in a local band, worked at a sawmill and a tomato cannery before joining the U.S. Navy, at 17, during World War II. After the war, he pitched baseball for the University of Maryland and had a brief run as a minor leaguer in the New York Yankees system.

He was a kind of Golden Boy.

After graduating law school, he was elected to the state senate, became the state’s first secretary of transportation, and then won his 1978 race for governor in one of the most stunning upsets in modern history.

He should be remembered by historians as a man of dignity, who set an example for integrity in government, who helped clean up the Chesapeake Bay and set the bar high on environmental issues in general, and was an early champion of stem cell research.

But he’ll mainly be remembered for his stunning come-from-behind election as governor, an election that forever made him Maryland’s Patron Saint of Lost Political Causes.

Nobody imagined Hughes would be elected. He’d resigned as Maryland’s first Secretary of Transportation after protesting the awarding of a subway contract to a politically-connected firm instead of the lowest bidder.

And then, with little financial backing and little overt popular support, he launched a campaign for governor that seemed to be going so poorly that State Senator Harry (Soft Shoes) McGuirk famously called Hughes a “lost ball in high grass.”

In the Democratic Primary race, he was running at about 2 percent in the polls, when everything suddenly turned. The Baltimore Sun endorsed him. This was a time when newspapers still had some clout. His climb in the polls was dramatic.

Then, not only did he defeat the front runners – Blair Lee, who’d succeeded Marvin Mandel as governor, and Ted Venetoulis, the popular Baltimore County executive – but, in the general election, he defeated Republican J. Glenn Beall in a landslide. In 1982, Hughes won re-election.

But, though his administration suffered no overt corruption, it was dogged by a savings and loan scandal, in which customers lost millions of dollars. The state helped bail them out. But many accused the Hughes administration of being asleep at the switch for letting the crisis develop in the first place.

A stark memory of the scandal lingers. When the news first broke, and long lines of panicked investors formed outside the crooked savings and loan branches, the General Assembly met late into the night. What did it all mean? How bad was the situation? No one seemed to know.

In the midst of this, Hughes walked onto the House floor. Legislators gathered, and so did reporters.

But they weren’t gathered around Hughes – they were gathered around House Speaker Benjamin Cardin. Cardin was regarded as the wise man of the hour. Hughes’ reputation had already slipped. He’d been the one at the controls when the scandal was fomenting and no one seemed to be paying attention.

The reputation cost Hughes when he ran for the U.S. Senate and lost in the Democratic primaries to Barbara Mikulski.

About the author

Michael Olesker

Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of five previous books, including Michael Olesker's Baltimore: If You Live Here, You're Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts' Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press. Contact the author.

One Comment

  1. vincent d. oxford says:

    the giants are leaving us one by one, and soon none will be left!!!!


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