Maryland's last cliffhanger was 1919 governor's race ELECTION 1994

November 10, 1994|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

Set against the backdrop of a national coal strike, worries over President Woodrow Wilson's health and the bitter aftermath of the Great War, Marylanders trudged to the polls to choose a governor on an unseasonably warm Nov. 2, 1919.

The election, whose outcome was in doubt for four days as votes trickled in, was won by Albert Cabell Ritchie -- by a mere 165 votes. And it will remain the closest gubernatorial election in Maryland history, unless a tally of absentee ballots tightens the Parris N. Glendening-Ellen R. Sauerbrey race.

The 1919 campaign, which pitted Mr. Ritchie, the Democratic attorney general, against Harry Whinnah Nice, the Republican state's attorney from Baltimore, had produced "no issues of importance," The Sun reported.

The principal plank of the Democratic platform was a shift from patronage to the merit system, which Republicans also supported. And while there was no specific reference to liquor in either platform, both parties supported the candidates' well-known wet views.

The only campaign issue that slightly aroused the electorate was the Republican charge that Frank Kelly, a Democratic city boss, would dominate Ritchie as governor. Mr. Nice referred to the boss as "King of the Underworld."

But Democrats later showed that Mr. Nice had been linked to Mr. Kelly for the previous 15 years and often sought his support.

As the election neared, Mr. Ritchie was favored to win.

A straw vote taken just before Election Day by clothing cutters and trimmers at the Strouse and Brothers factory, on Lombard and Paca streets, predicted that Mr. Ritchie would win 3-to-2.

L Some betting was reported with odds of 10-to-8 in his favor.

In an election-morning editorial, The Sun, which had endorsed Mr. Ritchie, said that "it is probable that the results in the city will be known by 9 o'clock and it is possible this result will be significant to tell who will be the next governor of Maryland.

"And probably today," the newspaper continued, "a very considerable proportion of Mr. Nice's vote in Baltimore will come from Teutonic sympathizers who are still 'sore' over Germany's disasters."

The easy confidence of clear-cut election results vanished when the next morning's 6:30 a.m. edition of The Sun led with a cautious headline: "Ritchie Apparently Elected By Plurality Of Under 1,000 Votes; Democratic City Candidates Win."

On Nov. 6, headlines proclaimed that Mr. Ritchie's lead had slipped to 326 votes and "unofficial" returns had made him governor.

But Chairman Galen L. Tait of the Republican State Central Committee proclaimed Mr. Nice the governor.

The next day, with official returns in from all 23 counties and from 5 of 28 wards in Baltimore, it appeared that Mr. Ritchie's lead had slipped to 198 votes. Charges of fraud and trick ballots began to be voiced by the Republicans.

Finally, an election that had electrified the state for days came to an end at 4 p.m. on November 8, when the official canvass in Baltimore was complete. Mr. Ritchie was declared the winner, 112,240 votes to 112,075.

He declared, "Tonight after the hardest and closest fight for Governor which, I believe, has ever taken place in Maryland, but two thoughts are in my mind -- gratitude to all who have placed their trust in me and determination to be as worthy of their trust as I can be."

But Republicans have claimed ever since that there was a discrepancy in the count and that Mr. Nice really won.

Mr. Ritchie was the first Maryland governor to succeed himself; he was re-elected in 1923, 1926 and 1930.

He was known nationally as a champion of states' rights and for his opposition to the New Deal. He would die in 1935.

H. L. Mencken, writing in The Evening Sun, said of Mr. Ritchie, "He believed thoroughly in his star, and took what came to him without any grain of protestation of his unworthiness . . . [he] was unquestionably the most competent governor that Maryland ever had."

Mr. Nice, after serving two terms on the Appeals Tax Court and working in his law practice, launched a challenge against Governor Ritchie in 1934. With the campaign slogan "Right the wrong of 1919," he won by 6,000 votes.

The bitterness of 1919 had faded. He told Mr. Ritchie, "It is, indeed, a great honor to be the Governor of Maryland, but I'm sorry that it was you I had to beat to win it."

After serving one term, he returned to Baltimore and his law practice, and remained the head of the state Republican Party. He was stricken with a heart attack in 1940 and died the following year.

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