Cole learned politics early and well

Senate victory in 1954 a great political upset

February 21, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith

BOSS POLLACK tipped his hat to Harry A. Cole even before the young Republican lawyer pulled one of the great upsets of Maryland political history.

James H. "Jack" Pollack -- one of Baltimore's wiliest political overlords -- recruited another guy named Cole to run for a General Assembly seat in 1954, knowing many voters would be fooled into giving him votes intended for the Cole named Harry.

Pollack was acknowledging in the clearest possible way his respect for Harry Cole, a popular, well-organized and energetic newcomer who, the boss could see, had figured out how to win. "Names the same" was a tactic used to weaken, to draw away strength by confusing the voter.

Pollack's control of politics in those days ran from the governor's mansion to City Hall and deeply into the courts. White Democrats ran poorly when they challenged Pollack's machine in primaries, so few political observers thought Cole, a black Republican, had any chance to win.

"Pollack voted dead people, people who didn't live in the district -- whoever was still on the voter rolls," says former Circuit Judge Edgar P. Silver, once a member of the Pollack team. "He would stack that money up on a table and give $5 to every family in the precinct."

So Harry Cole's ultimate victory had many facets: He became the first African-American state senator in Maryland history. He was one of only two Republicans from Baltimore to win a seat in the General Assembly during the latter half of this century. And his victory signaled the arrival of black voting power in the city.

Nevertheless, Cole, who died at 78 a week ago from complications arising from pneumonia, conceded in a 1997 interview with The Sun that Pollack's tactics were unsettling.

"It befuddled me. I haven't been able to get my mind clear yet," he said, as if Pollack's trickery had taken him out of his game.

But Cole was too mature -- too worldly wise -- to allow the likes of Pollack to distract him. As a 33-year-old lawyer in search of clients -- and a political career -- he was too focused on winning to care if Pollack's actions were personal or racial, though Pollack never "took" black candidates in those days. Cole said he respected Pollack's savvy and ruthless determination -- although he loathed machine politics.

Cole's early years prepared him to fight adversity and racism. He'd been raised by a strict mother. He'd served in both theaters during World War II, encountering the forces of discrimination in its usual and unusual forms. He quickly realized that whatever Army training class he might seek would suddenly be full to capacity. He was assigned to a laundry unit, but learned that his outfit probably would have served as cannon fodder for an invasion of Japan.

At the same time, he met whites who were interested in him as a human being -- as a card-playing buddy, for example. During a monthlong ship's voyage to the Japanese island of Okinawa, Cole met a white kid from Mississippi who helped him sharpen his passion for bridge.

The son of a tailor and one of five children, Cole was born in Washington on New Year's Day 1921. His father died when he was an infant, and his mother moved the family to Baltimore, where she had grown up.

All of his schooling -- from elementary grades through law school -- was done in the city. He graduated from Douglass High School in 1939 and from then-Morgan State College in 1943 with highest honors.

After the war, he returned to Baltimore to attend the University of Maryland School of Law, graduating in 1949.

While running unsuccessfully for the House of Delegates in 1950 and in 1951 for the City Council, he saw leverage in the growing black voting presence in Pollack's home turf, then the 4th District of Northwest Baltimore.

Cole abandoned his "shotgun" approach to voter registration to concentrate in areas where he knew his support was strong and growing. If he could turn out blacks -- as Pollack had done with Jewish voters -- he might have a chance.

He knew as a lawyer that residence mattered in voting. And he had learned that many 4th District voters were not 4th District residents.

He was on a ticket that year with another Republican, the popular Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, who was running for his second term as governor.

Two Coles

However, the House of Delegates candidacy of Emory R. Cole was something to be reckoned with, and he knew it. They were not opponents, but he knew two Coles on the same ballot meant trouble.

"You can believe the electorate is intelligent if you want to," he said, "but they get mixed up and they don't know who they're voting for. I wanted to quit."

But only for a moment. By the end of the campaign, Harry and Emory Cole were campaigning together -- and both won, Harry Cole by 37 votes over Bernard Melnicove, an incumbent Democrat from the unbeatable Pollack stable. At first, Melnicove seemed to be the winner by more than 100 votes.

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