Twenty years? How about 150?

Frank A. DeFilippo

April 26, 1991|By Frank A. DeFilippo

AS CRUDE as the gesture was, history says City Council member Sheila Dixon had a point when she brandished her shoe at white male colleagues during the shouting match over redistricting. Dixon was demonstrating that political power in Baltimore is shifting to the other foot.

It's blacks' turn, all right, and they deserve it. For in the latest turn of the screw, the politics of Mobtown has come full circle. The assertion of ethnicity has once again rearranged the map of the city.

Why anyboby's surprised is the mystery. First it was the unruly mobs, "pluguglies" and "blood tubs," to name two. Then it became the political organization, later rechristened the "machine." The latest manifestation is untested, but a good guess would be mayhem.

In the mid-1800s, the mobs that terrorized the polling places were largely ethnic groups -- Irish, Greeks, Italians, Poles, Germans, each seeking political superiority over the others.

The Irish won the skirmishes and dominated Baltimore (and Maryland) politics well into the 1930s. At that juncture the Jews, later joined by the Italians, snatched politics from the Irish. Jews had not been allowed to vote in Maryland until 1826. Blacks are the new kids on the block, and in the ethnic progression are probably long overdue for a turn at sniffing the hem of power. Going strictly by the numbers, there's nobody left, nobody, that is, unless Asian-Americans take a sudden interest in powerhouse politics.

During the great waves of immigrants from the mid-1800s to the early 1920s, the political machine was the welfare organization of its day. A turkey at Christmas, an occasional bucket of coal, help finding work, walk-around money -- these were enough to tie up a family's votes for life. In the familial structure of Irish politics, the "muldoon" was the ward or district leader who could deliver the most votes through a network of children, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, in-laws, friends.

It was late in the 19th century when the fractious ethnic mobs were finally pulled together in a citywide political organization under the leadership of Baltimore's first great political boss, Isaac Freeman Rasin. The only office Rasin ever held was clerk of the court.

Rasin was joined by U.S. Sen. Arthur Pue Gorman, of Howard County, who dispensed patronage in Maryland as a reward for running Grover Cleveland's campaign for president in 1884. Together, Rasin and Freeman ran Baltimore and Maryland like manic Machiavellis, as efficiently as Tammany or Tweed.

After Rasin's death in 1907, political power in the city passed on to his Irish lieutenants, John J. "Sonny" Mahon, John S. "Frank" Kelly and William Curran. Much of Baltimore's politics during this period bubbled in the old 10th Ward around the Maryland Penitentiary. Kelly's narrow row house on West Fayette Street was visited by senators and presidents. Kelly was said to be illiterate. But when he died, ledgers were found in his house detailing every favor he'd ever done for politicians and constituents alike.

Curran, the son of poor Irish immigrants, was a brilliant criminal lawyer as well as a remarkable political mastermind. He ruled the city's Democratic Party, and among those bosses he helped climb the political ladder was James H. (Jack) Pollack, who presided over the Jewish vote in Northwest Baltimore.

But Pollack was ambitious. He formed a coalition with Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., and the Irish were elbowed out of politics by the Jews and Italians. Pollack's mission was to elect Jews to public office in the city as well as in Annapolis.

The best guidebook to the politics of this period are the "Moco" Yardley cartoons from The Sun. Yardley inscribed each boss' derby with a fraction representing the amount of its wearer's power. City politics was now a matter of shared power -- Pollack, Kovens-Goodman and Ruby Stofberg in the northwest; D'Alesandro-Hofferbert and the Young Men's Bohemian Club on the east side; Wyatt-Della (Stonewall Democratic Club), Julian "Chicken" Carrick and "Bip" Hodges to the south; and Coggins-O'Malley, the Curran-Riscutti Organization and Paul Reed in the northeast. The most powerful black political boss as well as the wealthiest black in the city was William "Little Willie" Adams.

Pollack's and Irv Kovens' paths intersected, one on the way up, the other on the way down. Pollack's power began to fade in the '60s, just as Kovens began to assume new importance. Kovens' first great stroke was the citywide sweep in 1959 of the "three G's" -- J. Harold Grady as mayor, Philip H. Goodman as City Council president and Walter Graham as comptroller. Kovens broke away from the Democrats in 1966 to support Spiro T. Agnew, giving him access to the patronage and power of the governor's office. And later, Kovens' political clubhouse managed the parallel careers of Marvin Mandel as governor and William Donald Schaefer as mayor and later as governor.

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