Worried Hughes returns to fray Former Md. governor convenes panel today probing Pfiesteria

September 22, 1997|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

DENTON -- As Harry R. Hughes sat on his back porch overlooking the Choptank River yesterday, he spied an osprey circling overhead and pondered aloud why the bird hadn't made it overdue migration south to more indolent climes.

The thought may occur to him again today as the 70-year-old reluctant retiree convenes the first meeting of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's blue-ribbon commission searching for possible answers to the latest threat to the Chesapeake Bay, a one-cell organism called Pfiesteria piscicida.

"The mystery of this thing has got me concerned about the future of the Chesapeake Bay and the other rivers," said the former Maryland governor. "And when you're concerned, you do something about it."

Verified as the cause of a huge fish kill in the Pocomoke River just weeks ago, Pfiesteria has also been blamed for human illness, and triggered a veritable panic among tourists and seafood consumers.

The actions Maryland may take to address the growing threat are no less controversial -- possible restrictions on the Eastern Shore's giant poultry industry, new regulations to curb farm runoff, or potentially expensive upgrades of local sewage-treatment plants.

Enter Hughes, whose credentials as a native Eastern Shore man, an environmentalist and a Glendening loyalist made the erstwhile nature watcher an ideal choice to return to the political fray once more.

"It helps that people respect Harry," said Lloyd L. Simpkins, a retired Somerset County judge and fellow member of the 11-person panel. "Eastern Shore men are pretty clannish and they stick by their people."

William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the appointment instantly made the commission credible to the environmental community.

"He and [former U.S. Sen. Charles McC.] Mathias started what is now a third decade of efforts to save the bay," said Baker, who will also serve on the commission. "People are going to believe and put their trust in the process."

A trust revived

Credibility and character have long been the stock-in-trade for Hughes, whose two terms as governor revived trust in state government after the scandalous days of Marvin Mandel. It took the fall of Old Court Savings and Loan and the other state-insured S&Ls to sour his public standing -- and ruin a 1986 Senate bid.

Treated as a political pariah by Gov. William Donald Schaefer for the next eight years, it was only after Glendening was elected that Hughes returned to public life. But as recently as May, Hughes stepped down from one of his key appointments, state Democratic Party chairman, to spend more time at his home outside Denton.

"I think Parris appointed me to this commission so I wouldn't run against him," quipped Hughes.

While Glendening has already publicly suggested that land-use policies are the culprits behind the Pfiesteria scourge, Hughes insists his commission will be objective and consider all the evidence before making its recommendations by Nov. 1.

He wants to learn much more about the organism -- what is this toxin or combination of toxins that causes bloody lesions in fish? What is causing the problem now? What's the most practical solution?

"I suppose all of our problems in the water are somehow tied to the land, but I don't want to prejudge this," he said.

Hughes is also hoping that if the commission seeks changes from farmers that they are made through voluntary programs. That, he noted, was how he helped reduce farm runoff when he was governor.

"Somehow we have to learn to live with both farming and a clean- er Chesapeake Bay, and I think we can," he said.

That is vintage Hughes, a willingness to compromise that critics often chided as a weakness but helped him push through an ambitious environmental agenda in his second term. A coolheaded executive, the ying to Schaefer's hot-blooded yang.

Making the job easier is that he will see some familiar faces on the commission, two former aides who are now Glendening cabinet members -- Environment Secretary Jane T. Nishida and Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin.

"It shows how things have come full circle," said Griffin. "The issues are no less daunting than they were in those days."

Not an early nature lover

Growing up in Denton, a county with less waterfront than any other on the Eastern Shore, Hughes was not smitten by nature early. He loved baseball more than hunting or fishing, became a lawyer and was elected to the General Assembly in 1954.

But when a Mathias-initiated study of the Chesapeake Bay by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was published in the early 1980s, Hughes seized the issue. His subsequent initiatives, from a temporary ban on the harvest of striped bass to restrictions on development of the critical areas adjoining the bay, became his most notable legacy.

"Nothing I did ever made me more popular," he said. "Besides everything else, the bay is good politics."

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