Maryland's folksy comptroller for life


July 06, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

A FEW THINGS about Maryland never quite made sense: Jousting is the official sport, the state song sounds like a Christmas carol, and the most popular politician is the guy who collects the taxes.

Or was, anyway.

The first time I saw Louis L. Goldstein, some time in 1976, he made a crowd howl with laughter, and topped off his remarks by saying, "God bless you all, real good." I made him for a rural state senator - in white belt and white shoes - with ambitions to become governor; that day he looked like he could have licked any challenger, too. He was, it turns out, comptroller for life, liked and trusted more than any other Maryland politician.

Louie Goldstein could brighten a room like a Martin's West chandelier. His eyes sparkled. The polyester in his sport coats shimmered. So many times there'd be an event, a lot of speech-making, a long drone of politicians saying safe and obvious things, reaching for ungraspable eloquence. Then Louie'd get up there, and the room would crackle to life. He could say safe and obvious things, too, but in that all-zipped-up, good-ole boy style of his. He kept his speeches short, folksy and positive. He kept the bond rating strong. He promised to get our refund checks out fast. What was not to like?

Of course, being state comptroller meant never having to take a controversial position. That way, it was an easy job. Most elected officials can alienate people with one vote, or one phrase uttered in public. The comptroller? He could keep his mouth shut and his title safe just by keeping the books straight.

But Louie could surprise you. In 1988, when the National Rifle Association spent millions of dollars in an effort to defeat a referendum that would ban certain types of cheap handguns, the comptroller endorsed the ban. He was from a rural county and an avid hunter, but he was so repulsed by the NRA's lies that he campaigned in support of the new law.

Of course, by then he had been comptroller for about 30 years, re-elected seven times. So maybe he had the confidence to take the risk.

Still, that particular episode revealed a serious interior of the man with the folksy style and the loud sport coats. He was a backslapping, hand-shaking politician who never met a microphone or camera he didn't like. And yet, Louie was grounded in a set of strong principles, fostered in the Depression, the New Deal and World War II. Marylanders liked him, trusted him, counted on him. We grumbled about taxes and gave the tax collector standing ovations.

Ironically, the last time I saw Louie, he gave a very reserved speech, far different from the first one I'd heard 22 years ago. It was Fallen Heroes Day in May at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, an emotional event that pays homage annually to Maryland firefighters and police officers killed in the line of duty.

Several politicians gave speeches, Louie among them. He kept his remarks short, as usual, but his tones were reverent and modest, humble really. The last thing he said was, "God bless you all, real good," though he might have left off the folksy "real good" part. I can't say for sure. All I know is, Louie was there, as he had been so many other times at so many other events in so many other places in this state. It seems like he's always been there, doesn't it? We won't see one like him again, will we?

High-tech a-rabs?

Cool news: A Baltimore a-rab wagon rigged with a 2-by-4-foot solar power panel, a cellular telephone and a small computer for electronic transactions. Are these interesting times we live in, or what?

Steve Blake, president of the Arabber Preservation Society, reports that an agreement has been reached with Bell Atlantic Mobil, Atlantic Solar Design and a California company called Verifone to install a solar-powered unit on one horse-drawn a-rab wagon by the end of the summer, making possible produce purchases by inner-city citizens with Independence cards. The switch to the Independence cards from food stamps hurt the a-rabs' business some, Blake says. Now, with a swipe of the card, low-income or elderly customers will be able to buy fresh vegetables and fruit in neighborhoods where, if not for the a-rabs and their horses, none would be available. "We'll have one prototype set up by the end of the summer," Blake says. "And if it works, we'll go from there. This could really broaden the [a-rabs'] market."

Postal mysteries

Herman Heyn, Baltimore's street-corner astronomer, has a question about an utterly earthly subject: "Why in the world is the new drive-through mail drop at the main post office so big and high off the ground that most drivers must get out of their cars to deposit their letters? [Maybe] it's designed for sport utility vehicles. So the rest of us must simply park and walk!" And here's another postal mystery: How a letter addressed to one Linda Keely, 96 Freshwater Road, St. John's, Newfoundland A1C2N7, reached a home at 96 Ritters Lane, Owings Mills, 21117. Go figure that one!

Pub Date: 7/06/98

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