Baltimore County Politics: East Side Story

April 17, 1994|By PATRICK ERCOLANO

For much of this half-century, the tale of political power in heavily Democratic Baltimore County has been an east-side story. This has been especially true of campaigns for the county executive's office.

Various factors -- including demographic shifts and, possibly, the unusual absence of a home-grown candidate from the east -- could dictate a different ending to this summer's Democratic primary race for county executive. But the consistent power of the large eastern voting bloc is not something candidates can afford to take lightly, despite the fact that the old east-side Democratic political machine has been dead and buried for at least 20 years.

The machine, controlled by Michael J. "Iron Mike" Birmingham Jr., Roy N. Staten, James A. Pine Sr., Dale Anderson and other pillars of Dundalk, Essex and Parkville, was a model of centralized power. It fielded tickets and then, calling in chits for past political favors, tapped the vote-rich east county to send its candidates to Towson, the official seat of power in Baltimore County.

How strong was the organization? In 1970, the seven Democrats on the machine ticket overwhelmingly won the at-large election for the seven County Council seats -- though two of the winners did not carry the areas they were to represent.

By the early 1970s, reforms had finally finished the machine politics that had ruled the county since the Civil War. The switch from at-large elections to district races (for state senators and delegates in 1966, for County Council members in 1974) killed centralized power. Clout was to be enjoyed all around the county.

In addition, the development of a merit system for government employees and the replacement of the local Magistrate Court with a District Court appointed by the governor brought an end to the machine's patronage games.

Still, in the years since the machine's demise, the east side has continued to play the key role in Democratic executive primary campaigns, particularly in the three most closely contested races -- 1974, 1978 and 1986. (The 1982 and 1990 primaries amounted to rubber-stampings of the Democratic incumbents.)

In 1974, Theodore G. Venetoulis ran from the Pikesville-Randallstown area.

The east-side Democratic machine was a model of centralized power.

Ordinarily, that would have been a hopeless position for an executive hopeful, but 1974 was a year of great public hostility toward the machine. County Executive Dale Anderson recently had been convicted for misdeeds in office (32 counts' worth). So had Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, a former Baltimore County executive who, although a Republican, had scooped up an impressive number of east-side votes in the 1962 general election when two factions of the Democratic machine feuded.

Selling himself hard as the candidate of change, the youthful Mr. Venetoulis won his home turf and easily took the east county against Frederick L. Dewberry, a machine-backed pol completing Mr. Anderson's term, and George P. Mahoney, the man who launched a thousand losing bids for sundry elective offices in Maryland.

Four years later, as Mr. Venetoulis vied to become governor, State Sen. Donald P. Hutchinson of Essex fought off six other Democrats to win the executive primary. He prevailed by only 3,500 votes over then-state Sen. John C. Coolahan of Halethorpe (now a District Court judge and, after he resigns from the bench next month, a probable candidate again for county executive). Mr. Hutchinson held his own elsewhere in the county, but it was his huge vote total in the east that secured his victory.

Ironically, the Coolahan campaign had been endorsed by most of the old east-side chieftains. His second-place finish confirmed the death of the machine. Also, the Hutchinson field organization had been extremely thorough and efficient.

The east came through for another native son eight years later, in 1986, when then-state Sen. Dennis F. Rasmussen of Essex likewise scored solid totals countywide -- in this case, against three other candidates -- while winning big on his home base.

Even in the absence of the machine, then, the east side has remained a kingmaker primarily through its voluminous voter rolls. And it could again wield its old clout because it has about 40 percent, or roughly 100,000, of the county's 242,000 registered Democrats, according to county election board figures from February.

The question is, will any of the expect-Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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