The Political Legend That Was the Late Harry ‘Soft Shoes’ McGuirk

It was one of those awful, humid summer nights in Baltimore nearly seven decades ago. We were all sitting around the Locust Point Democratic Club in the 1200 block of Hull Street, dressed down to the basic essentials to escape the beastly elements. We were playing a little poker, drinking some cool draft beer, cursing the fates, and puffing away on our cigarettes. The club was so close to the harbor you could hear the longshoremen loading the steel pipes on an Alcoa Steamship vessel at Pier 9.

At that time, I was 18 years old and working on the waterfront as a stevedore/cargo checker out of ILA Locals 829 and 1429. Suddenly, the front door opened wide and in strutted one of the 6th District’s popular city councilmen, Tom Fallon. He had his usual entourage of coat-holders, spear-carriers, and drinking buddies with him. Fallon was also our neighbor and a true gentleman to the core.

Bringing up the rear was a stranger, a character right out of Central Casting, a double for the late comedian Ernie Kovacs. He was attired in a silk shirt and tie and colorful sports coat, with a full crop of wavy black hair resting atop a massive head.

“Hi,” he said warmly, “I’m Harry McGuirk.”

I asked him if he wanted a beer. He answered politely, “No thanks, I don’t drink, but I’ll have a Coke Cola if you don’t mind.”

This was my introduction to the man who would dominate south side politics for most of the next four decades – Harry “Soft Shoes” McGuirk.  He went on to make a solid reputation for himself as a distinguished lawmaker in both the Maryland House of Delegates and State Senate (1960-82). While he served in Annapolis, he was always a friend to the Baltimore City’s mayor and to his constituents in South Baltimore.  (McGuirk died in 1992, at age 68.)

McGuirk’s legislative skills became legendary. It was during his long tenure as chairman of the Senate’s Economic Affairs Committee that he demonstrated his ability to shepherd legislation through the maze of the General Assembly. Critics – and he had a few – labeled him the “gray fox,” and worse, as a “political whore.” To his many faithful friends and staunch allies,  however, he was the consummate lawmaker, the ultimate go-to guy.

He was, of course, always more than just an officeholder to many of the citizens of the then-predominantly working-class South Baltimore.  McGuirk was the boss of the powerful Stonewall Club, then one of the city’s last bastions of rough-and-tumble clubhouse politics. It was located in the 1200 block of South Charles Street.

And, despite the slurs of some liberals, the Stonewall, under his tutelage, was more open to candidates for public office than many organizations praised for their so-called “democratic” procedures. While other “liberal” political clubs refused to give the floor to political hopefuls like independents and socialists and even a gadfly perennial candidate, such as Melvin Perkins, Stonewall gave all of them a chance to “spout their heads off.”

I got to know McGuirk on a more intimate basis during the 1970s, while I was the 24th Ward captain and lawyer for the club. As a master dispenser of municipal and state political patronage, he touched many lives, including mine.

In 1976, I ran as a Jerry Brown Delegate (he was then governor of California), to the Democratic National Convention on the Stonewall ticket in the 3rd Congressional District. I was confident of victory, but it didn’t work out that way. I lost! I was wallowing in self-pity when I got a telephone call late one night from McGuirk. Somehow, he had worked out a deal to have me attend the convention as an “Alternate” pledged to U.S. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. I had little idea who Senator Jackson was and no idea of his record, but I did now know why the newspapers had taken to calling McGuirk – “Soft Shoes.”

McGuirk knew how to broker a political deal without a sound being heard by outsiders. This was his true genius. It was why his name was synonymous for many with old-time Maryland clubhouse politics. McGuirk was also a close ally with Maryland governor, Marvin Mandel, and stayed loyal to him even through his most difficult days.

Maryland’s State House Via West Street. Photo By Bill Hughes

In 1976, Jimmy Carter won the presidential nomination. The Democratic convention was held that year in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. McGuirk believed Carter, who had the delegate count sewed-up early, could beat the shaky incumbent president – Gerald Ford – in the general election. I remember him telling me while we were heading north on the New Jersey Turnpike to the convention why he thought Carter would win. It was not because the Georgian was the better of the two candidates.  McGuirk’s view was that the serious fallout from the “Watergate Scandal” would continue to doom the Republicans. It turned out, that he was right as usual.

In 1969, I was appointed to the Baltimore City Solicitor’s office as an Assistant City Solicitor.  It was McGuirk, who secured the post for me. I later became Chief of the Litigation Division for that office, in 1977, and served till 1981, when I resigned to return to private practice.

(One of the more important cases, that I handled while in that office was titled, “Adler v. City,” Circuit Court, No. 2, File No. 84/A, 379/46221-A. In that case, the plaintiffs, a citizens’ group, sought an injunction to permanently enjoin the City of Baltimore from allowing any commercial development in the Inner Harbor. After a full hearing on the merits, Judge James Perrott of the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City, denied the plaintiffs’ petition on March 13, 1978.)

Finally, the “Stonewall” back in that era was the oldest Democratic club then in continuous existence in Maryland. Politicos, like Joe Wyatt, Maurice Wyatt, Willie Meyers, Johnny Hines, Judge Bill Hudnut, Tom Fallon, George Della, Sr. and Jr., Leroy Fredericks, and Judge Tim Murphy, were all associated with it during its halcyon days. But the figure making the most lasting impression in the Stonewall Gallery, in my opinion, was the incomparable – Harry “Soft Shoes” McGuirk (RIP).