McGuirk, smooth legislative magician, dies

April 21, 1992|By Marina Sarris and Patrick Gilbert | Marina Sarris and Patrick Gilbert,Staff Writers

Harry J. McGuirk, the white-maned gubernatorial aide and legislative magician who was one of Maryland's last old-time Democratic machine leaders, died of a heart attack in a Baltimore parking garage yesterday. He was 68.

The former state legislator and longtime leader of South Baltimore's Stonewall Democratic Club was taking a furlough day from the governor's office when he was stricken near his car on the second level of the Hopkins Plaza parking garage.

Paramedics took him to University of Maryland Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 11:30 a.m., said Page Boinest, a spokeswoman for Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

"We will miss Harry," said Mr. Schaefer, who had known Mr. McGuirk since boyhood. "When we have Cabinet on Thursday, his seat will be vacant, but his memory will be there."

Mr. McGuirk became a trouble-shooter for Mr. Schaefer in 1988, after a stint as a lobbyist for Baltimore, a losing bid for governor in 1982 and a 22-year career in the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates.

With the political savvy and courtly manners born of years as a deal-maker, Mr. McGuirk moved quietly through the State House corridors on Mr. Schaefer's behalf, occasionally huddling in corners to whisper to legislators. He lobbied for administration bills and tried to help break stalemates.

When legislators reached an impasse, "you could almost count on seeing that thick, white head of hair watching the proceedings," said Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, a Baltimore Democrat.

Years ago, Mr. McGuirk acquired the nickname "Soft Shoes" because, some say, he would move deftly on an issue, get his way and never leave a trace.

As Stonewall's patriarch, Mr. McGuirk reigned as the "undisputed political lord of South Baltimore" and "master of the legislative arts" during his days in the General Assembly, says a 1977 profile in The Sun.

As a delegate from 1960 to 1967 and a senator from 1967 to 1982, he developed a reputation for reading every bill to find the misplaced comma or the unintended effect.

"I think he had a photographic memory. He could remember bills that passed 25 years ago and what they did," said Del. Paul E. Weisengoff, a Democrat from Mr. McGuirk's South Baltimore political stronghold.

"I'm blessed with a memory and a faculty I can't explain," Mr. McGuirk told The Sun in 1977. "Like a musician can hear a bad note, I can just run down a piece of legislation and tell what's out of line."

Turning the tables, Mr. McGuirk frequently proved that knowledge was power by introducing seemingly minor amendments that would change the meaning of a bill.

"He was the greatest amendment drafter around -- to try to save a bill or kill a bill," recalled Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, who served in the Senate with Mr. McGuirk.

The Sun in 1977 described Mr. McGuirk this way: "His manner is effortlessly conspiratorial. The simplest greeting is exchanged like a confidence, his head lowered, voice hushed. From a short distance it is impossible to tell whether he is discussing the weather or arranging the demise of your favorite bill."

RTC Other times, his "fancy footwork" was less amusing, at least to newspaper editorial writers. During his Senate days, The Sun accused him of "protecting a special interest" by trying to continue a state subsidy for auto wreckers and scrappers who removed abandoned cars from public streets.

The chief beneficiary was a politically connected man whose business was in Mr. McGuirk's district.

In 1977, Mr. McGuirk himself benefitted from a City Council bill allowing construction of a drive-in restaurant on a half-acre South Baltimore site that he bought from an oil company for $100,000 four days after the vote -- and then sold to McDonald's Corp. for $150,000 barely a month later.

Mr. McGuirk, who sat in on Planning Commission meetings and a City Council committee hearing on the restaurant proposal, did not divulge his interest until his dealings were revealed in deed records -- and then acknowledged that he had gotten a contract to buy the land from the oil company months earlier.

More recently, Mr. McGuirk drew editorial fire for his participation in a group seeking to build a medical waste incinerator in South Baltimore. Some questioned the ethics of a Schaefer aide serving as a "passive" participant in a private project that would depend on government subsidies.

An editorial described him as operating "with a wink and a nod. . . . His omnipresence in Maryland politics is enough to convince bureaucrats at every level that he is a man of influence. The appearance of power is practically equal to power itself."

As a politician in Baltimore, Mr. McGuirk acquired a reputation for doing favors without bragging or seeking publicity. He would not ask for votes in return, but it was always understood that his generosity would be remembered on Election Day.

"He had a big heart and everyone around the district knew it, that's why they would turn to him for help," said City Councilman Joseph A. DiBlasi, a 6th District Democrat.

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