Long gone are days of 'Sweetie Pie' in Baltimore GOP victory in '63 goes unmatched

November 06, 1991|By Michael Ollove

Once upon a time and so very long ago, a Republican challenger for mayor squared off against a Democratic incumbent, and the two favored Baltimore with a rollicking good time. Venom flew in all directions, an unexpected twist threatened every turn and -- best of all -- at the end was the exhilaration of an election night alive with chain-smoking suspense.

It was 1963, a time when characters named "Sweetie Pie," "Little Willie" and "Uncle Joe" lorded over Baltimore politics, when bookies took bets on vote tallies and when the people of this city still voted -- at least once, anyway.

Today, after Baltimore slumbered its way through yet another predictable mayoral race -- one that enticed less than a third of the electorate to the polls -- it's hard to imagine the city staging an exciting general election campaign. In the last 28 years, the city has become inured to the spectacle of a Democratic trouncing of a hapless sacrificial lamb from the GOP.

But in 1963, when the legendary Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, erstwhile mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, threatened to wrest City Hall from incumbent Democratic Mayor Philip H. Goodman, no one turned the channel.

True, Mr. McKeldin was 62 years old then, grayer and thicker in the middle than when he had ruled over Baltimore in the '40s. He was also four years removed from the losing end of the worst pasting in Baltimore's political history when J. Harold Grady beat him by 81,000 votes to become mayor.

In 1963, Mr. Grady was gone, having taken a judgeship. But his replacement, Mr. Goodman, was considered a formidable foe, a stylishman ever attentive to the details of political organization.

But Mr. Goodman did not have Mr. McKeldin's charisma or oratorical ability. Old-timers credit Mr. McKeldin with being the first modern politician to campaign from the pulpit. "He went to the synagogues and wore a yarmulke," said Gene L. Raynor, current administrator of the state board of elections, "and to the black churches and sang 'Hallelujah' and to the Catholic churches and said 'Your Grace' to the bishops and 'Your Eminence' to the cardinals. They ate him up."

Mr. McKeldin tore into Mr. Goodman, labeling him the puppet of the political bosses. He neglected to mention that the biggest boss of them all, M. William "Sweetie Pie" Adelson, was then wheeling and dealing on his behalf.

Still, two weeks before the election, bookmakers were laying 3-1 odds against Mr. McKeldin's return to Holliday Street. Then a strange thing happened. The Republican candidate for city comptroller pulledout of the race when, embarrassingly, his former business went bankrupt. The Republicans named Hyman A. Pressman, an unsuccessful Democratic primary candidate, to take up the flag.

Democrats were outraged and unsuccessfully went to court to block the Pressman maneuver. The move galvanized the city's interest, and people flocked to the polls at a near-record 55 percent.

The early returns from the east and south sides showed Mr. Goodman comfortably ahead, but late that night, as the voting slips poured in from the black west side and especially the northern sections of the city, Mr. McKeldin charged ahead. When it was over, after midnight, he had won by fewer than 5,000 votes.

Mr. Goodman, stung by the loss of his own heavily Jewish 5th District, bemoaned that he, who was actually Jewish, had been beaten by a "professional Jew." Political boss James H. "Jack" Pollack was seen pacing the streets in his district muttering that Mr. Pressman's candidacy, which gummed everything up, was "a travesty of justice." Mr. McKeldin made an uncharacteristically short victory speech and then said he was going to bed.

That was the last closely contested race for mayor between a Democrat and a Republican. Four years later, after Mayor McKeldin's retirement, Democrat Thomas J. D'Alesandro III beat his Republican foe with 86 percent of the vote. The quadrennial slaughters of the GOP commenced, and Baltimore's interest in the general election waned. In the last two decades, voter turnout for the general election has rarely registered above 35 percent.

Political veterans such as former state Sen. Harry J. McGuirk attribute the decline in voter interest to the demise of patronage in politics. Patronage was the raison d'etre of the old political organizations, which were, in turn, so skilled at getting out the vote. "Now there's nothing to stimulate the interest of voters," Mr. McGuirk said.

Mr. McGuirk and others also noted that Mr. McKeldin had unique appeal. During his career, he was often more liberal than Democrats and was especially attractive to Jewish and black voters for his advocacy of civil rights and his attention to them.

Because of that popularity, he was able to overcome the 4-1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans in Baltimore.

Since then, Republicans have become even less palatable to city voters. Today, the ratio has ballooned to 9-to-1, and Mr. D'Alesandro, a great admirer of Mr. McKeldin, said that it is lunacy for any Republican to expect support in a city like Baltimore.

"I don't know how in the hell a Republican, in good conscience, can expect to run and win in the city when all over the country the Republicans have written off the cities," he said. "That's their policy, and now they want to be mayor? It doesn't make any sense."

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