Last hurrah for Mount Royal Democratic Club

Activist community groups displace machine politics

December 13, 2009|By Lorraine Mirabella | lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

At its last gathering, the ready-to-disband Mount Royal Democratic Club drew one of its biggest crowds in recent years to mark the end of an era Saturday evening at the club's annual holiday bash. Organizers said it was the final hurrah for a club that no longer has a place in an age of community association activism, the Internet and too many other demands on members' time.

Several hundred formally dressed people, including current and former members and invited guests, mingled with top elected Democrats over cocktails and pate while a brass quartet entertained in the marble lobby of the MICA building in the 1300 block of Mount Royal Ave.

Gov. Martin O'Malley joked that the club's president, former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, had come up with a great marketing gimmick, advertising the bash each year as the final one, likening it to "the Cher farewell tour. And every year the crowd gets bigger," he told the crowd of about 300 people.

But Lapides, a member since 1959, said interest in the 56-year-old club has waned, with "community associations taking over as political clubs," taking on issues such as road design and neighborhood problems.

"We haven't been able to get people out," he said. "We've had meetings with very small attendance. It almost looks like a Republican club," he joked.

The founder, retired Baltimore City Circuit Judge Tom Ward, recalled starting the club with two others in Bolton Hill in 1953, when they were all in their 20s.

"We had issues that were different" from those of long-established political organizations, he said. "We were interested in historic preservation, mass transit and civil rights. We were the first integrated club in the city. We helped put a lot of people into office in the city."

Ward noted that the club was also instrumental in helping to fight the proposed expressway through Fells Point in the early 1970s.

The club was founded at a time when political bosses ran sections of the city and a club's endorsement typically meant a sure win for a candidate. But in the 1960s and 1970s, growth of nonpartisan activist groups led to a steady decline of the Democratic machines in Baltimore and other cities.

Herb Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College who attended Saturday's holiday party, said most of the Democratic clubs across the city have disbanded over the years as community associations have grown in importance.

"It's been a long, slow decline," he said. "By the '70s and '80s, community organizations in Baltimore became more powerful and became a more credible apprenticeship" for political candidates.

City officials who attended included City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Comptroller Joan Pratt and Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke.

Pratt said the Mount Royal Democratic Club had "been very influential in the past." Glancing around the packed room, she said, "It would seem like there is still interest."

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