Eastside experiences downside of Baltimore Co. power politics

February 22, 1994|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Sun Staff Writer

A story in Tuesday's editions on Baltimore County's Eastside politics omitted the name of a candidate for county executive this year. Donald W. Brewer, the county's former ride-share coordinator, is running as a Republican against incumbent Roger B. Hayden.

The Sun regrets the errors.

In 1962, two of Baltimore County's Eastside political chieftains got into a squabble that changed the course of American history.

Michael J. "Iron Mike" Birmingham Jr. had just won a bitter primary for the county executive's nomination and wanted to put down a palace revolt by his former protege, Walter J. Rasmussen. Mr. Rasmussen, it seems, had the temerity to back Mr. Birmingham's rival, incumbent Christian Kahl.

So Mr. Birmingham sent his former ally a message.

"The message was that he was going to teach me a lesson," Mr. Rasmussen recalled. "I decided right then and there I was going to teach Mike a lesson."

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

So Mr. Rasmussen picked up the telephone and placed a friendly call to the underdog Republican candidate, Spiro T. Agnew. With Mr. Rasmussen's help, Mr. Agnew did well enough on the Democratic Eastside to become the county's first Republican executive. He went on from there to become governor and then vice president under Richard M. Nixon.

The Democratic political machines of Dundalk and Essex may never have that kind of impact again. But for almost four decades, they have been the county's kingmakers, putting their chosen candidates in the executive's office or providing the critical votes for the winners -- of both parties.

In 36 years of charter government, only once -- when Theodore G. Venetoulis won the 1974 county executive's race in a year of reaction to political scandals -- did the Eastside fail to exert its power.

But politics and the county's demographics have changed since the Eastside's glory days of the 1950s and 1960s.

As the Eastside's economic and industrial base waned, so did its political power. With the 1994 county executive race heating up, it appears that the Eastside won't have one of its own in the running. Only once since charter government was adopted in 1956 has the Eastside not produced its own strong candidate for county executive (the exception was 1974).

And some old-timers wonder whether the area can still deliver for someone else.

"There's no organization down there anymore," said Mr. Rasmussen, whose nephew Dennis became a one-term executive in 1990 when he lost his bid for re-election because he couldn't hold his troops together. "They don't know how to deliver the vote the way it used to be delivered."

Jim Barry, a former county Democratic chairman and a longtime friend of Mr. Birmingham, described the blue-collar Eastside as one of the best politically organized areas in Maryland.

"The precinct captains got the people to the polls and made sure they voted the right way," said Mr. Barry. "The political organization in Dundalk and Essex was like a well-oiled machine."

Races were countywide

The Eastside's population and discipline fitted in nicely with the structure of government at the time. Through the late 1960s, every candidate for office in Baltimore County ran countywide -- including candidates for County Council and the General Assembly.

So dominant was the Eastside that no one from any part of the county could be elected unless his name appeared on the slate supported by the Eastside's political clubs.

"Party leaders and Eastside political bosses would meet at the Democratic Party headquarters, known as the Castle on the Hill in Towson, and decide who was going to be on the ticket and who wasn't," said Bob Romadka, county Democratic Party chairman from 1962 to 1974.

Patronage, too, played an important part.

"When I broke into politics in the late 1960s, there were 18 Democratic clubs in the Essex-Dundalk area alone. They existed mainly as a result of patronage," said former County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson, now president of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

The choicest plum was a seat on the Trial Magistrate Court, which didn't require a law degree.

"In the old days, precinct captains and district bosses could fix a citizen's legal problem by seeing 'their friend' in Magistrate Court -- in return for a vote in the next election, of course," Mr. Hutchinson said.

In fact, it was a fight over an appointment to the Magistrate Court that prompted Mr. Birmingham to challenge incumbent Mr. Kahl in the 1962 Democratic primary. Then, not satisfied with winning the nomination, Mr. Birmingham turned his anger on Mr. Kahl's ally, Walter Rasmussen -- who promptly fought back.

History shows that Mr. Birmingham -- who has since died -- actually won Mr. Rasmussen's 15th District in Essex with 13,550 votes. But with Mr. Rasmussen's help, Mr. Agnew got 9,500 votes.

GOP total 'unheard of'

"That was an unheard of number of votes for a Republican in those days," said Doris Suter, a one-time Birmingham organization worker who is now administrator of the county election board.

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