A pol who listened to his heart, not the polls

November 19, 1998|By Jack L. Levin

THEODORE R. McKeldin was born 98 years ago tomorrow into a working-class family in South Baltimore. In his long life of public service, he became Maryland's most successful politician, serving two terms each as mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland.

He would have found incredible the widespread use today of polling by candidates, who put a finger to the wind to see what position they should take.

Parade leader

McKeldin did not follow the parade, he led it by persuasion, conviction and shoe leather politicking. He moved people from where they were to where he believed they should be, persuading the majority to change their mind. He was guided only by principles that he sincerely believed in.

Many in the Maryland GOP disagreed with him on key issues, but he controlled the party because he was a recognized winner, having been elected governor in 1950 and 1954. He was elected mayor of Baltimore in 1942 and 1962.

He did not wait for opposition to social injustice, religious, ethnic and gender discrimination to become politically correct before vigorously attacking those prevalent attitudes. When he knew that something was wrong, he blasted it.

I first heard him speak in the 1950s before an all-white, Protestant crowd in a Northeast Baltimore car dealership.

In off-the-cuff remarks, he described a recent trip to Israel, where he had visited biblical sites and had stood and where the miracle of the ingathering of exiles was taking place.

He spoke with increasing emotion, pausing to wipe tears from his eyes. I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. Certainly his political astuteness made him aware that this audience could have cared less about what he felt, but he nevertheless told them what he thought they should hear.

Later, when he couldn't swallow the beliefs of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, McKeldin vented his strong opposition in a speech that I wrote for him endorsing the Democratic candidacy of Lyndon B. Johnson.

He was a trailblazer in Maryland's move away from radical discrimination and toward equality.

Through persuasion and, in some cases, voluntary acts of good human relations, McKeldin opened many new positions to African Americans. He appointed the first black police magistrate, John L. Berry. He created what would become the state's first human relations commission.

He named the first black members to state boards overseeing health, welfare and education. He called for admission of black students to the "A" course at Polytechnic Institute.

He enthusiastically supported the repeal of all Jim Crow laws, even when speaking on Maryland's Eastern Shore, then a hotbed of segregation.

He worked intensely on desegregation of the state's parks, beaches and buses.

He opposed the Vietnam War and capital punishment. He expressed shame that he had yielded to public pressure in allowing the execution of four people.

Another of McKeldin's special qualities was civility. I recall being in his campaign headquarters with some of his aides after midnight, waiting for McKeldin to return from a campaign speech at the Frederick fair.

When he returned around 1 a.m., fresh and invigorated, his sleepy campaign manager told him that Democratic Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro Jr. had roasted him mercilessly on television that evening in supporting his opponent, University of Maryland President H.C. Byrd. The manager urged him to respond in the strongest way to the attack. McKeldin answered, "Oh no. Tommy is my friend. He was just talking politics."

The secret of McKeldin's success in Maryland politics was that he was more democratic than the Democrats.

5) Jack L. Levin writes from Pikesville.

Pub Date: 11/19/98

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