Life with 'Soft Shoes' Maryland's consummate politician

William Hughes

April 24, 1992|By William Hughes

IT WAS ONE of those awful humid summer nights in Baltimore, nearly 37 years ago. We were all sitting around the Locust Point Democratic Club, dressed down to the basic essentials to escape the beastly elements, playing a little poker, drinking some warm draft beer, cursing the fates and puffing on our cigarettes.

The club was so close to the harbor you could hear the longshoremen loading the steel pipes on the Alcoa ship at Pier 9. I was 18 years old and working on the waterfront as a stevedore/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, with his usual entourage of coat-holders, spear-carriers and drinking buddies.

Bringing up the rear was a stranger -- a character right out of central casting, a double for the late comedian Ernie Kovacs, attired in a silk shirt and tie and colorful sport 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 beer, but I'll have a Coke if you don't mind."

This was my introduction to the man who would dominate southside politics for most of the next three decades. Harry McGuirk, who died Monday, was to make a solid reputation for himself as a distinguished lawmaker in both the House of Delegates and state Senate. While he served in Annapolis, he was always a friend to the Baltimore city mayor and to his constituents in South Baltimore.

His legislative legerdemain became legendary. It was during Mr. McGuirk's 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 many, labeled him the "gray fox," a "political whore" and much worse. To his many faithful friends and staunch allies, however, he was the consummate lawmaker, the ultimate fixer.

He was, of course, always more than just an office holder to many of the citizens of predominantly working-class South Baltimore. Mr. McGuirk was the boss of the powerful Stonewall Club, one of the city's last bastions of rough-and-tumble clubhouse politics. 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 "democratic" procedures. What other political club gave the floor to political hopefuls from the Communist Party, to socialists, LaRouchies and even to gadfly perennial candidate Melvin Perkins?

I got to know Harry 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, Mr. McGuirk touched many lives, including mine.

In 1976, I ran as a Jerry Brown delegate to the Democratic National Convention on the Stonewall ticket in the 3rd Congressional District. I was confident of victory, but reform politics spelled doom for me. I was wallowing in self-pity when I got a telephone call from Mr. McGuirk late one night. Somehow, he had worked a deal to have me attend the convention as an "alternate" pledged to Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson. I had little idea who Senator Jackson was and no idea of his record, but I did have an idea why the newspapers had taken to calling Mr. McGuirk "Soft Shoes." Harry 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 is synonymous with old-time Maryland politics.

Jimmy Carter won the nomination in 1976. The Democratic convention was held, as this year's will be, in New York City's Madison Square Garden. Mr. McGuirk believed Mr. Carter, who had the delegate count sewed-up early, could beat the shaky President Gerald Ford in the general election. I remember him telling me while we were heading north on the New Jersey Turnpike that he thought Mr. Carter would win, but not because the Georgian was the better of the two candidates. Rather, Mr. McGuirk said fallout from the Watergate scandal would continue to doom the Republicans. He was right as usual.

The Stonewall is the oldest Democratic club in continuous existence in Maryland. It was named after the great Confederate general, Stonewall Jackson. Political giants like Joe Wyatt, Willie Meyers, Johnny Hines, Bill Hudnut, Tom Fallon, Leroy Fredericks, George Della Sr. and Judge Ed Daugherty were all associated with it during its halcyon days. But the figure making the most lasting impression in the Stonewall gallery will be the incomparable Harry "Soft Shoes" McGuirk.

William Hughes practices law in Baltimore.

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