'Soft Shoes

April 21, 1992

There was only one "Soft Shoes." That was Harry J. McGuirk's nickname in the State House and at City Hall, the two focal points of political power that he frequented -- and frequently influenced -- during his 32 years in government. He was the consummate political insider and deal-maker, whose modus +V operandi was so smooth yet complex that he resembled Fred Astaire on the dance floor. South Baltimore's own "Soft Shoes."

No Maryland politician was more respected for his mastery of the legislative system and the uses of power than Mr. McGuirk, who died yesterday at age 68. He had not been a legislator for 10 years yet everyone still called him "senator" in his job as executive assistant to Gov. William Donald Schaefer. He knew how to pull strings and quietly achieve his goals without leaving telltale signs of involvement. He played his own version of three-dimensional political chess so skillfully that few could ever figure out all his plans and stratagems.

Mr. McGuirk reigned supreme in South Baltimore. For decades he stood as the undisputed power behind the Stonewall Democratic Club that ruled the 6th District. Though never a member of the City Council, Mr. McGuirk determined how the 6th District delegation would vote with a nod of his head from the sidelines. No wonder the delegation became known as "the Silent Sixth."

As chairman of the Senate Economic Affairs Committee, Mr. McGuirk spearheaded the city's legislative package through the chamber. The city depended upon him to get its most vital bills enacted. When he decided to retire from the Senate in 1982, it created a power vacuum for the city that still has not been filled ten years later.

Though Mr. McGuirk sought to expand his political influence citywide, statewide and nationwide, he never succeeded. He ran for Congress in 1972, governor in 1982, City Council president in 1987 and talked frequently about running for state comptroller should the venerable Louis L. Goldstein retire (he still hasn't). But through it all, he remained undaunted -- and always courteous.

Harry McGuirk was the last of this city's old-fashioned political leaders, a ward heeler who always took care of his constituents' needs, even after he left office. He was also a legend within the Maryland legislature, the most skilled practitioner of the wink and the nod, the unrivaled champion of crafting legislation with subtle nuances only professionals can fully appreciate.

"Soft Shoes" McGuirk was one of a kind. Sui generis is the Latin phrase. Some of his political colleagues might not understand that literary allusion. But Harry would have understood. He seemed to know about everything.

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