Why they were Democrats, why they are Republicans

September 26, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- The name of Joe Obrycki, dead these 26 years, lives on in a famous Baltimore restaurant and crab house. Politicians often gather there. There is a faint irony in this because the founder, in life, wanted nothing so much as to be an old-fashioned big-city political boss.

The restaurant's success, in fact, was almost accidental. The son of a Polish immigrant, Joe Obrycki was a bookmaker by trade, as well as a minor muldoon in the Curran organization, which had provided him with a sinecure in the Orphan's Court. A neighborhood restaurant near Fell's Point seemed a better cover for his gambling activities than the family's old candy store, and offered as well a comfortable place to broker political favors.

In politics, Joe Obrycki never became a kingpin. He was just one of the b'hoys, as The Sun's great cartoonist Richard Q. Yardley -- a loyal patron of the crab house -- used to call the cigar-chomping hacklets of the old city Democratic machine. Even so, thanks to a journalist named Samuel Freedman, he is today assured of a little place in American political history.

Mr. Freedman, like many of us, was fascinated by the great seismic shift that saw, over two or three generations, vast numbers of working-class American families switch their allegiance from the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt to the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan. This changed the political dynamic and even the culture of the country. To understand better how it came about, Mr. Freedman looked closely at three such families.

Anecdotes and personal details, of course, can't fully explain such a revolution, but they help. In his wonderfully readable book ''The Inheritance,'' just published by Simon and Schuster, Mr. Freedman follows his three families from the Depression to the pivotal election of 1994. One of the three happens to be Joe Obrycki's.

In 1951 Vilma Obrycki, Joe's daughter, married Jack Maeby, a poor boy from East Baltimore. Jack had starred at quarterback at Patterson High, served in the Army and gone to Bucknell on a football scholarship. At college he had excelled as a scholar as well as a football player, and as graduation and his wedding both neared, he had faced a choice between two nearly antithetical opportunities.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology had offered Jack a partial scholarship for graduate study, and Montgomery Ward had offered him a job as a management trainee. Deciding that graduate school would simply postpone his entrance into the real world, he chose the job.

''In doing so,'' Mr. Freedman observes, ''he was metaphorically registering as a Republican.'' He was also choosing membership in the traditional middle class over the elite New Class of lawyers and Ph.D.s that would be so influential in the four decades to come.

Jack's work with Ward eventually brought the Maebys to Albany, where their daughter Leslie went to college. Eventually -- partly in reaction to the casual sexual and social mores of many of her proudly liberal classmates -- she drifted into Republican politics, first as a volunteer, later as an equally dedicated professional.

Greatest satisfaction

By the November elections of 1994, she had helped scores of Republicans win office, including Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey and Rudolph Giuliani in New York City. Her greatest satisfaction came when George Pataki, whom she had first helped as a candidate for the state senate, was elected the new governor of New York.

In the Pataki campaign, she worked with people like Frank Trotta Jr., a lawyer, and Tim Carey, a veteran campaign strategist. With them and others like them, she had much more in common than a Republican registration.

All three were the great-grandchildren of immigrants and the grandchildren of active, committed Roosevelt Democrats. All came from close families -- and Catholic ones, perhaps not coincidentally. (In 1994, for the first time since before Al Smith became governor of New York, a majority of American Catholics voted Republican.) All had had personal experiences which had hardened their conservative instincts.

Frank Trotta blamed the death of a beloved war-veteran uncle on Democratic deal-making which blocked his promotion to chief of the New Rochelle fire department. Tim Carey, whose grandfather and uncle were gravediggers in Ossining, had bitter memories of duty as a military policeman during the 1967 anti-war demonstration at the Pentagon.

These were not country-club Republicans. They did not attend elite schools. They had not been excited, in 1992, by the candidacy of George Bush. They had few racial animosities, but a healthy mix of street smarts and class hostilities. From their Democratic grandparents, they had learned to be suspicious of government policies embraced, with pious rhetoric and transparent self-interest, by people with old money and blue blood.

And they had learned something else, the key to their political successes when the American tide began to turn. Again like their grandparents, the people who had made possible the New Deal, they understood that the hard-working middle class, once aroused, can be a mighty political force.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 9/26/96

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