Clubhouses empty, political clout gone

Democrats: Organizations that once dominated Baltimore and Maryland struggle to exist.

December 14, 2003|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

Time is running out on Baltimore's last old-line Democratic clubs, relics of an era when powerful bosses dispensed jobs and favors from smoke-filled backrooms in exchange for votes and political control.

Highlandtown's 81-year-old United Democratic Club is scheduled to meet Tuesday to decide its fate. In South Baltimore, the Stonewall Democratic Club, a fixture since the Civil War, is so dormant that it has not had a membership meeting for a year and a half, according to one of its leaders, state Sen. George W. Della Jr.

A broken "Stonewall" sign over the once-mighty organization's locked door at 1212 S. Charles St. symbolizes its decline. So does the September primary election in which City Councilman Edward Reisinger, a Stonewall member, nearly lost his bid for renomination.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption in Sunday's editions of The Sun transposed the identifications of Jack Pollock and Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr.

Such humiliation would have been unthinkable decades ago, when the Stonewall boss and his b'hoys ruled South Baltimore with an iron hand and the club's endorsement was all that a candidate needed to win.

"Our options are very limited," Della said of the club's future. He speculated that Stonewall, pressed by diminishing membership, the building's high maintenance costs and escalating property taxes in an increasingly trendy neighborhood, may end up selling the clubhouse.

Stonewall has not been the same since state Sen. Harry J. McGuirk died 11 years ago. Likewise, Highlandtown's United never recovered from the death in 1994 of its longtime leader, City Councilman Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro. That club is expected to sell its clubhouse at 3723 Claremont Ave. and discuss reorganization.

Joseph "Joe the Rat" Ratajczak, 71, recalled "Mimi's club" fondly.

"I learned an awful lot there," said the retired State Highway Administration motor equipment operator, who won some Democratic Party posts but lost bids for the City Council.

"Oh, my God, it was the club," seconded B.C. Cocchia, 84, a retired steelworker and one-time ward heeler.

Stonewall and United are the last vestiges of an era when Baltimore was run by white Democratic bosses who controlled the judiciary and police, distributed patronage at City Hall and state bureaucracies, took care of neighborhood problems and the needy, and helped waves of immigrants to become citizens and voters.

Fall of city machines

In the 1960s and 1970s, the rise of nonpartisan activist groups, along with the adoption of civil service requirements for government jobs, contributed to the deep decline of the old-line Democratic machines in Baltimore and in other big U.S. cities.

"With the growth of community associations, Democratic clubs became anachronistic, particularly when there was no Republican threat," said Del. Carolyn J. Krysiak, an East Baltimore Democrat, referring to the Democratic Party's decades-long grip on Baltimore.

Several clubs still meet regularly - the Second District New Democratic Club, Mount Royal and Quo Vadis, for example. But the only machine of any consequence is the Eastside Democratic Organization, which dates to the mid-1960s.

The African-American group flexes its muscles through an economic development corporation and nonprofit social delivery organizations which benefit from the influence of elected officials who are EDO members. They control the boards while making sure in Annapolis and City Hall that those organizations get public funding.

"They can intercede, put a good word in," said Bill Henry, long a participant in East Baltimore's complicated squabbles.

But the EDO is a pale imitation of how things used to be, according to political junkies.

For decades, until about 1906, two Democratic bosses, Isaac Freeman Rasin and Arthur Pue Gorman, in effect ran Maryland. "When the system was perfected, Rasin controlled the city and Gorman the state, and they cooperated with each other," Suzanne Ellery Greene Chapelle observed in her book, Baltimore: An Illustrated History.

After their deaths, several new bosses divided the city. Tom Smith, who ran a big illegal lottery racket from his Druid Hill Avenue hotel, got the African-American franchise. Gilbert A. Dailey, who became the federal tax collector at the port, grabbed the dormant Stonewall in largely Irish and German South Baltimore. He turned it into his fiefdom for the next 47 years, until his death in 1953.

Those were Stonewall's glory days. It had a membership of 2,500. Besides its election and patronage functions, it sponsored boxing matches and ran the municipal track and field championships for decades.

Like many other political clubs of the time, Stonewall also had its own baseball team.

During one 1936 doubleheader, with the Stonewalls about to lose, a woman rooting for the homeboys ran down from the bleachers and started hitting the visiting Relay Athletic Club's pitcher with a bat.

Shep S. Hochberg, the Stonewalls' pitcher, rose to the occasion and ended the melee.

"He is a policeman," The Sun reported. "Not only did he break up the riot, but he arrested the opposing pitcher and catcher."

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