McGuirk's Last Student Passes a Tough Exam


April 26, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Right about now, Harry McGuirk is probably looking down from that Great Political Clubhouse in the sky and nodding his approval. His last student has started to learn some of the lessons the old South Baltimore wizard tried to impart.

It makes no difference that William Donald Schaefer is four years older than Mr. McGuirk, who died suddenly last week. Harry was the more mature and more skilled legislative operative. But then, Harry was a sage voice on the legislative scene long before his hair turned so angelic white that a reporter once likened it to meringue.

Harry McGuirk: acknowledged master of the legislative process in Annapolis and at City Hall. He knew more about drafting a bill, amending a bill and getting a bill passed than any current member of the General Assembly. Tales of his brilliance abound. He's been a legend in State House hallways for two decades.

He seemed to flounder, though, in imparting his wisdom to Governor Schaefer. Though Mr. McGuirk was a gubernatorial aide for four years, he had only limited success getting the governor to heed his advice.

Mr. McGuirk understood intuitively how legislatures worked. He understood the importance of a governor acting as a consensus-builder and leader. The governor should be the one giving lawmakers a sense of focus while he slowly builds a majority coalition on key issues.

Coalition-building, though, isn't this governor's forte. It takes time and infinite patience and an enormous amount of flexibility. That's not Don Schaefer's style. Occasionally, he would follow the McGuirk pattern, but soon the lessons would be forgotten as Mr. Schaefer reignited old feuds with the legislature.

That pattern changed abruptly at the tail end of this past General Assembly session. Donald Schaefer started acting like a governor. Instead of fighting with the legislature, he identified key issues where he and a House-Senate alliance saw eye to eye. They then worked in unison to push through a controversial budget and tax package.

It was a virtuoso performance, worthy of a Marvin Mandel or a Harry McGuirk. First, the governor put his foot down when House members, under pressure from tobacco lobbyist Bruce Bereano, sought to shelve any tobacco tax increase.

At one meeting, the governor warned House leaders that if they wanted to do Mr. Bereano's bidding, fine, but he was concerned about stopping kids from smoking and reducing Maryland's high cancer rate. Either pass his 20-cent tax hike on cigarettes or the governor said he'd veto the entire tax package.

His threat worked. So did the governor's quiet discussions with legislative leaders to find ways out of their last-minute differences. And then, to send just the right message for future legislatures, Mr. Schaefer rewarded his allies with $35 million in school construction projects for their home districts.

Opponents cried foul. They know better. It was simply an exercise in old-fashioned politics -- to the victors belong the spoils. Harry McGuirk knew how this rule works. And now, Governor Schaefer was applying the rule superbly.

At last, Mr. Schaefer had become an integral part of the legislative scene. He had effectively used resources at his disposal. And he had done so with enough sophistication and force to win a major victory.

This holds great promise. Perhaps Mr. Schaefer won't be a lame duck governor after all. A powerful coalition emerged. It consists of House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and his large leadership contingent, the suburban delegations from Prince George's and Montgomery Counties and politicians from Baltimore City. Put them together with a governor who knows how to reward his allies, and the Schaefer administration's future could be rosy.

What a pity Harry McGuirk won't be around to see it. He'd be in his element. Not only did he add color and an aura of mystery to the Annapolis scene (the constant refrain was, "What's Harry up to?"), he knew how to make good legislation better and a poorly drafted bill passable.

Dozens of legislators still tell stories of Harry McGuirk going out of his way to help them when they were rookie lawmakers. He'd offer to re-shape a bill or re-word a mangled section so it would be acceptable.

If a bill reached the floor in a form that threatened passage, Mr. McGuirk would be there to offer revisions to make it viable.

He served as a one-man backstop, spotting minute but fatal flaws. On one occasion in the early 1970s, he stunned colleagues by finding a misplaced comma in a 200-page re-codification bill -- a dry, technical document that reorganized and updated the Annotated Code. As it turned out, the comma totally changed existing law. It was a typical McGuirk discovery that had escaped everybody else's attention.

Governor Schaefer will miss Harry McGuirk. Yet perhaps it was the proper time for Harry to exit sine die. The governor seems to have mastered some of the master's teachings. Now if only the legislature can find another Harry McGuirk, maybe the quagmire known as the General Assembly will gets its act together, too.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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