Hyman Pressman, colorful booster of 'little guy,' dies City comptroller, inveterate politicker had Alzheimer's

March 16, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Fred Rasmussen, Scott Wilson and Albert Sehlstedt Jr. contributed to this article.

Hyman A. Pressman, the irrepressible poetaster, erstwhile civic gadfly and longtime city comptroller, described by associates as "the champion of the little guy," died yesterday of Alzheimer's disease at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital. He was 81.

Mr. Pressman came out of East Baltimore talking the 14-year-old boy orator of the 1928 presidential campaign, on the stump for Al Smith. Only old age and infirmity shut him up and ended his politicking.

He became the self-anointed champion of the plain folks, using the taxpayer lawsuit as his lance, tilting at bureaucratic government. He often succeeded at the most unlikely and quixotic quests. He'd poke and poke until he punctured the most thick-skinned politicians.

"It's like he's a folk hero," marveled Frank X. Gallagher, who was City Council president in 1987 after Mr. Pressman won election to his seventh term as comptroller. "Rightly or wrongly, he's the little man's hero."

"He really was a dedicated public official," said Richard A. Lidinsky, who was Mr. Pressman's indispensable deputy for more than 25 years. "His name was really synonymous with good government."

In or out of office, he'd never met a mayor he wouldn't attack. But during the Schaefer administration, he became increasingly isolated and co-opted. He continued to bark, but he was taking smaller and smaller bites.

William Donald Schaefer was president of the City Council in 1967 when he first skirmished with Mr. Pressman.

"He felt it was his duty to protect the interest of the taxpayers," said Mr. Schaefer, who went on to become mayor and governor. "And he had a staff of people who presumed that everybody was dishonest. They had an eye on you all the time.

"Now, I liked that. He knew what his job was," Mr. Schaefer said. "He didn't want to be mayor. He wanted to be comptroller. He never tried to be something he wasn't."

But public office eventually dulled Mr. Pressman's anger and blunted his lance, and in later years he acquiesced in actions that had ignited his wrath when he was a young outsider.

He had really reached his heyday as gadfly in the two decades after World War II and in his early terms as comptroller.

During the war, he served in the Army and became renowned for his legal help in fierce defense of enlisted men at courts-martial hearings. He claimed he never lost a case.

He came back to Baltimore just as eager to do battle for the underdog. He remembered filing his first taxpayer's suit in 1946 in an effort to force the commissioner of motor vehicles to produce an accident report.

He proposed licensing politicians.

He sought an injunction against nonbid purchases of firetrucks.

He squawked about pinball machines at the airport after he lost four nickels in them.

He irritated Mayor Thomas A. D'Alesandro Jr. daily. He complained about the remodeling and reassessment of "Big Tommy's" home in Little Italy.

Mr. Pressman's biggest coup, perhaps, was his battle with the Rivoli Garage project in the 1950s.

He charged that the property was undervalued for taxation and overvalued when it came to getting money from the city. He wanted a probe of the D'Alesandro administration, and got a grand jury investigation and, eventually, indictments.

Among those indicted were Dominic Piracci, the contractor whose daughter would marry Mayor D'Alesandro's son, and J. Neil McCardle, the city comptroller who had beaten Mr. Pressman in the 1951 Democratic primary.

Mr. Pressman had called Mr. McCardle the elder D'Alesandro's "Little Sir Echo." He handed out small scrub brushes and declared: "City Hall needs a good scrubbing." Mr. Pressman was rarely at a loss for a pun, a quip, a slogan or a stanza of doggerel.

He first ran for office in 1938, seeking a seat in the House of Delegates as "Swing Maestro" Pressman. He drew 1,000 people to a jitterbug and jive "swing session" in Hampden.

"Hymie," as he always was called, loved to dance whether it was in a ballroom or doing a jig in the annual St. Patrick's Day parades. He was an uninhibited if not necessarily expert dancer.

"I am an independent candidate with no financial or political debts," he told the 4th District electorate. "I shine no man's shoes, nor wear any man's collar. My conscience is my guide, the truth is my sword and my record is my shield."

But despite swing, truth and independence, he lost to political boss James H. "Jack" Pollack's candidate in the Democratic primary.

"Pollack is a pathological, pretentious peacock," he said. In riposte, Mr. Pollack called Mr. Pressman "a publicity pandering, pettifogging, pompous popinjay."

Mr. Pressman continued filing suits. He fought pay raises for the mayor, comptroller and City Council. He wrote one of his first "poems":

Every last one of them voted aye

To give themselves raises to the sky.

He took his case all the way to the Court of Appeals and won a rollback in 1956. But it must be said that Mr. Pressman took pay raises with little protest after he became comptroller winning for the first time in 1963 as a Republican.

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