McGuirk May Have Been the Last of the Old-Style Political Bosses

April 26, 1992|By FRANK A. DeFILIPPO

Harry McGuirk is dead. So is his political organization.

Yet Senator McGuirk's clubhouse still stands: the Stonewall Democratic Club at 1212 South Charles St. in South Baltimore. It is the oldest political club in the state -- dating from 1866 -- and one of the last functioning political clubs in a city that not long ago boasted dozens of them. In the entryway, there are large twin portraits of Stonewall Jackson and (who else?) Harry McGuirk, with his signature hairdo resembling a bowl of whipped egg whites.

Today, Stonewall's politics are mainly past tense. In the old days, when power was power, Reps. . Sam Friedel, George Fallon and Edward Garmatz, three of the most powerful committee chairman in the House of Representatives, would linger after club meetings at Stonewall for a friendly game of poker.

In years gone by, Mr. McGuirk and Stonewall could put several hundred double-knitters on the streets on election day. But death and disinterest have thinned the ranks of loyalists. So, too, has steady employment. A person making a decent wage isn't going to take a day off of work to earn $25 for spending 12 hours on a street corner as a poll worker.

Political obituaries often risk becoming exercises in taxidermy. Times change. People change. Political machines are deader than pterodactyls. Mr. McGuirk's death last week of a heart attack brings to near-completion the phase-out of machine politics on a grand scale.

In recent years, Mr. McGuirk, a long-time state Senator and recently a trouble-shooter for Gov. William Donald Schaefer, was pre-deceased by political strongmen such as James H. "Jack" Pollack, William "Sweetie" Adelson, George H. Hocker and Irv Kovens, along with district bosslets such as J. Joseph Curran Sr., Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., State Sen. Joseph Bonvegna, George Hofferbert, State Sen. Joseph Stazack, Hugo Riscuitti, Julian "Chicken" Carrick, Patrick O'Malley, State Sen. William "Bip" Hodges and a long list of others.

Harry McGuirk has a mind that would have been envied in a Medici palace. Yet for all his vaunted skills as a legislative wizard, political suzerain and artful schmoozer, he was never able to break out of the Sixth District or rise above the level of a Moco Yardley cartoon character labeled "1/6 boss."

He had the talent. He had the respect of his peers. He had the opportunity. But somehow his wheeler-dealer image and the velocity of political change capped his career at the level of a lovable Muldoon and a clubhouse apparatchik -- far from the courtly and sophisticated Ivy Leaguer (Cornell) that he was.

Today, Stonewall is more a social club than a political force. In an earlier time, urban political organizations functioned as social welfare agencies. Their strength and membership were built around the newly-arrived immigrants, and the clubs supplied legal advice, food, buckets of coal and patronage jobs. To the end, Harry McGuirk clung to the quaint traditional notion that political clubs existed to help people.

But the death-knell for organization politics began with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, as government agencies started to assume the social-work functions which had been performed by the machines.

A second blow was administered in the 1960s by community organizations supported by federal grants, as well as court-ordered reapportionment, which mandated territorial breakups every 10 years as new census figures caused the squiggles on the map to be rearranged.

Today, for practical political purposes, the Sixth District of Harry McGuirk no longer exists. Because of the recent roundelay of redistricting, the Stonewall clubhouse is in the First District. Another patch of its former turf is in a legislative district lying mostly in Anne Arundel County. Still, there are those who argue that the splintering of the district actually strengthened Stonewall by immersing it in the affairs of several districts.

The conventional wisdom is that television has replaced the political machine. As tubes were substituted for boobs, the "walk-around money" that used to pay members of political clubsinstead winds up in the paychecks of people that sell television advertising.

Along with television, the breakdown of the network of political clubs has been hastened by the mobility in society. Stability within neighborhoods, and the stability of alliances among neighborhoods to form organizations, diminished.

Add to the list of bad breaks the fact that political patronage -- the system of rewards and punishments -- is also greatly reduced, through home-grown reforms and court-ordered changes in the way business is done. As an example, Stonewall has been unable to arrange a judgeship for Councilman Timothy Murphy. The roster of jobs available from the court house to the State House -- and every level in between -- has become virtually extinct.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.