An election to remember

Baltimore Glimpses

July 13, 1993|By GILBERT SANDLER

IT WAS a breaking of a barrier: For the first time, an African-American, running against much of the white establishment, burst into citywide political prominence in Baltimore.

The person: Joseph C. Howard. The time and place: the 1968 election for judges of the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City.

Judge Howard wasn't the first African-American elected in Baltimore. Blacks had won significant political victories through the years: Harry A. Cole (Maryland Senate), Truly Hatchett (House of Delegates), Harry S. Cummings (City Council -- as far back as 1890!).

In 1958, E. Everette Lane, who in 1957 had been appointed by then-Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin to the People's Court, a court of limited civil jurisdiction, had to stand for election for the office. But he ran on his record as a sitting judge and had no opposition. He won -- 88,175 for continuance in office, 16,743 in opposition. There were other impressive breakthroughs, of course, instances where a single black politician had the power and influence to win a lesser purse on narrower turf.

But in 1968 there was a citywide election for judges of the Supreme Bench. The first black to run for that office and to put together a campaign strong enough to win it was Joe Howard. He secured his place in history, taking on the white establishment, the all-white Baltimore City Bar Association, the sitting judges (all of them white) and the "sitting judge" tradition, a philosophy adhered to by this newspaper that says sitting judges deserve re-election unless they've been total disasters. (The idea is that judges in general should not have to engage in the hurly-burly of elective politics.)

Baltimoreans were well aware that if Joe Howard won the office, he would be the first black ever elected to the Supreme Bench (now called the Circuit Court of Baltimore City). So being "first" would not be easy.

Five candidates ran in the primary. (Judges run in both the Democratic and Republican primaries.) The three "sitting judges" were Robert I. H. Hammerman, Thomas J. Kenney and Edwin J. Wolf. Challenging them were state Sen. Paul A. Dorf and former assistant state's attorney Joseph C. Howard. Mr. Howard and Senator Dorf survived the primary. In the November general election, they faced Judges Hammerman and Kenney, with one to be eliminated.

Judge Hammerman, immensely popular, was considered a shoo-in. Judge Kenney was somewhat less popular but thought a strong candidate. Senator Dorf was expected to draw the Jewish vote, and he had another thing going for him: the political machine of his father-in-law, James H. ("Jack") Pollack. Mr. Howard had the hardest fight: To win, he needed the solid backing of the black community and white votes as well.

All four candidates sought the endorsement of the Baltimore Bar Association, an endorsement many felt was tantamount to election. Mr. Howard's prospects worsened when the association endorsed only Judges Hammerman and Kenney. Fighting back, Mr. Howard invited his opponents to a four-way TV television debate. He said he proposed the debate because the bar association had failed to perform its traditional role of making recommendations for all vacancies and had left voters uncertain of the qualifications of the four candidates for the three court positions. But the TV stations didn't budge.

Judge Howard then petitioned the bar association to hold a referendum of its members, but the association refused. It maintained that the challenger's petition did not have sufficient names to force the referendum.

Of the campaign itself, Marshall A. Levin, former Supreme Bench judge now presiding over asbestos litigation, remembers: "Judge Howard was able to bring out the black vote for the very first time and make it count in a political way. It had never happened before, and I don't think it has happened in quite the same way since."

Judge Howard won handily, drawing more votes -- 114,253 -- than any of the candidates. Judge Hammerman got 106,413 votes, Senator Dorf 105,456 and Judge Kenney the boot.

Judge Howard served on the Supreme Bench until 1979, when he was named by President Carter to the U.S. District Court. Last year he took senior status.

Only days after Judge Howard was sworn in, he came out of the courthouse to find his car had been towed away. He had parked in a spot reserved for judges but had neglected to display his new parking permit.

He paid the fine, pleading guilty as charged.

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