Oh, for the pols of yesteryear Baltimore Glimpses

October 20, 1998|By Gilbert Sandler

THE pundits and the pollsters say the gubernatorial race is too close to predict. But predictions aren't what they used to be because local politics isn't what it used to be.

The quirky old pols, who usually could predict a candidate's victory and deliver it at the same time, are virtually gone from the Baltimore scene. Today's candidates are, by comparison, a polished, educated and sophisticated lot; they could not be a part of the machinations common to the old-fashioned neighborhood political organizations (called in their time "machines"). They're gone, too.

You had the likes of Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., better known as Old Tommy. A former pickle packer and tomato skinner, he ran and won in 23 elections (wearing his lucky polka- dot bow tie each time). He served as a representative to Congress, a state delegate, city councilman and mayor.

Jack Pollack grew up fighting (literally, he had been a professional boxer). Through the 1950s, he was supremely in command of the old 4th (mostly Jewish) District, ultimately fighting for turf into the 5th District with Irv Kovens and Phil Goodman.

Curran's crowd

In the Northeast, the bosses were mostly Irish: Curran, Gallagher, O'Malley, Coggins. In East Baltimore, according to Frank D. DeFilippo, a chronicler on such matters, bosses D'Alesandro and Joe Bonvegna and George Hofferbert ruled over a "theocracy of ethnic Catholics, where religion was politics and politics was religion."

In South Baltimore, the organization produced Harry "Soft Shoes" McGuirk, Joseph Wyatt, George Della and William "Bip" Hodges. The legendary boss of all the bosses was William "Uncle Willie" Curran. Curran was a different breed. A school teacher and a lawyer, he wore pince-nez glasses and laced his speech with classical references.

He played hard, always to win. When he died in 1951, judges in the Baltimore City courthouses stopped all proceeding to pay tribute to the former attorney general.

Getting out the vote

Political bosses in Baltimore history gained and held power by providing the neighbors with services, jobs and food, and by managing, one way or another, to get out the vote.

The boss system has been irrevocably weakened by the revolution in communications. Today, TV, radio and the Internet allow candidates to bypass such a boss and take their message directly to the people. That revolution, along with a vigilant press, has reduced machine politics to a shadow of its old role. The voices of the once all-powerful political organizations and the bosses who controlled the members have been reduced to a whisper.

The stories about such old pols are legendary. Here is an oft-told one: "Willie Curran was standing outside a legislative meeting room in Annapolis waiting for a meeting to end.

At last, one of his lieutenants came out of the room. He told Curran, with a hint of arrogance, "We won." Curran, unmoved, asked, "What was the vote? What was the vote?" The reply, "Thirty eight to 12." Curran narrowed his eyes, took off his glasses, and said, "Get me the names of those 12."

Gilbert Sandler writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 10/20/98

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