As a judge, Edgar Silver was kind - even to the guilty

October 03, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN HIS JUDICIAL days, Edgar Silver had a ritual before sending some loser off to jail. He'd ask defendants, "Do you like hamburger or chicken?" If they answered hamburger, he'd check a handful of menu cards in his hand and say, "Good, that's what they're serving at the Eastern Correctional Institute. That's where you'll be spending the evening."

As the attorney and lobbyist Alan Rifkin tells this little tale about Silver, he holds up a prison menu. The menu goes back years and years. Silver had a whole collection of the things, Rifkin says. He'd have them delivered to his courtroom each morning. And each defendant, before bidding farewell to the comforts of home, knew that at least his first meal behind bars would be a welcoming one.

The story arrives now because it captures a piece of Silver, the former judge, former state delegate, and veteran lawyer and lobbyist. In someone else's hands, the menu selection might have been a cruel joke. Silver intended it as a final act of grace, a tiny sliver of conspiracy between defendant and judge: At least we'll get you off to a good start.

"It was," says Rifkin, "like a free man's last request."

On Oct. 24, the friends of Edgar Silver will gather at Laurel Race Course to recall such piquant moments and to honor Silver for his 50 years of public service. Proceeds will go to the Children's House at Hopkins Hospital. At his friends' insistence, the evening's talk will be all about Silver's various kindnesses, and his quirks, and his connections. He is, perhaps most noticeably, one of the great political schmoozers of our time.

"My office is just a few doors down from his," says former Sun political columnist Barry Rascovar, now a communications consultant and columnist for the Gazette newspapers. "There's a barrage of calls for him every day -- Cas Taylor, Martin O'Malley, Sheila Dixon, Kurt Schmoke, Jim Smith, Mike Miller, Elijah Cummings. They just want advice. Or they just want to schmooze with Edgar. He's a wonderful person to be in the confessional with."

"The first time I laid eyes on him," says Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Joseph Murphy, "he was sitting in the old Western District Court. I was with Legal Aid. I was really struck by how nice he was to everyone, his sense of courtesy and respect. I said to myself, `If lightning ever strikes and I become a judge, I want to remember: This is how to treat people.'"

Silver's manner comes out of a certain history. His mother was from czarist Russia, his father a tailor from Austria. Silver remembers standing in line with his mother at the Metropolitan Savings and Loan, on Pennsylvania Avenue, during the Depression. The banks all over America were trembling. Silver's mother, who'd managed to save $700, was about to collect just 10 cents on every dollar she'd deposited.

"Since his teen-age days, he wanted to help people," Rascovar says. "It was drummed into him by his mother. It's a mitzvah" -- a blessing -- "to help people. It's the greatest thing you can do in your life."

Early in his political days, he learned the value of connections -- including family connections. His wife, Ann, was one of nine children. Silver figured this gave him an automatic nine-vote lead over any competition. He went to family and friends and asked them to write letters to any five friends. The letters said Silver would make a good elected official -- and asked them to write letters to five more friends.

When he won his House seat in 1954, he was a young attorney working out of his family's house on Auchentoroly Terrace. He looked at a guy named William Donald Schaefer who'd just been beaten in his own run for a House seat. Silver didn't see a loser. He saw an earnest young guy, and offered an introduction that would echo down the history of Maryland politics:

"Mr. Schaefer, meet my friend Mr. Kovens."

From that union of Schaefer and his patron Irv Kovens came the beginnings of Maryland's most remarkable 20th-century political career.

"Actually," says Alan Rifkin, who's one of Silver's legal/lobbying partners, "Edgar knows everybody who was anybody over the last 50 years. He has an encyclopedic memory. Whenever a name or an issue passes our desks, we pick up a phone and say, `Remember?' And, in short order, Edgar brings you up to date as if you'd lived through the event."

"He's the most decent man I know," says Baltimore District Judge Robert Steinberg. "One day years ago, I had to see him in Juvenile Court. He motioned for me to come up to the bench. He had a little boy up there with him, maybe 5 or 6 years old. He was comforting him.

"I asked him about it later. He said he'd had to sentence the boy's brother for armed robbery. And he didn't want the boy to be angry with the system, or think judges or policemen were bad people, or that he should be afraid of any of those people."

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