Old-time politics in Baltimore: It was all about whom you knew

  • Political cartoon from Richard Yardley, Baltimore Sun cartoonist.
Political cartoon from Richard Yardley, Baltimore Sun cartoonist.
September 10, 2010|Jacques Kelly

As a child, I learned political science Baltimore style. What mattered was who could fix a traffic ticket and who could get an alley paved. Figures like George Fallon and Eddie Garmatz were not men with names on downtown federal office buildings. They were neighbors, occasionally relatives of classmates. They were part of the Baltimore landscape. You did not run into them at City Hall or in Annapolis. You said hello at the neighborhood A&P. Cozy? You bet.

I never knew just how many of the people I really knew until I came upon a 1947 map published in The Sun. It was by Richard Q. "Moco" Yardley, the wonderful cartoonist whose humor brought elected officials and their cronies into proper Baltimore perspective.

His map listed the neighborhood fiefdoms and domains of so many people I knew or heard about as legends. Some of the people had curious names. Legendary film censor Mary Avara had a political power base, an all-female Democratic club, the 6th District Ladies Civic and Improvement Association, which she ran for years out of her South Carrollton Avenue rowhouse. She led visitors and favor-seekers to an immaculate living room with a linoleum floor and religious statues. Later, the club moved to headquarters above a grocery store near Hollins Market, and she counted among her political allies Harry "Soft Shoes" McGuirk and Julian "Chicken" Carrick.

I look at Yardley's world and see Willie Curran, Pat O'Malley, James Lacy, Joe Bopp, Gil Dailey, Sugar McElgunn, Henny Baynes and Jerry Sloman.

My father, Joe Kelly, often speaks of Joseph M. Wyatt, a South Baltimore powerhouse (traffic court magistrate), described by Sun political writer Thomas O'Neill as "a key figure in the turbulent politics that takes place south of Fayette Street." Wyatt was a precinct captain before he could vote.

"Traditionally an alert and affable magistrate in the Traffic Court grows rapidly in stature," O'Neill wrote in 1947. "Nothing is more cherished by a precinct bell-ringer than the impression among his neighbors that he has 'influence' in the Traffic Court. In order to create that impression, some politicians pay out of their own pockets the fines imposed on parking tickets they have agreed to fix for constituents."

In the African-American community of West Baltimore, an early force was Lloyal Randolph, who owned the York Hotel on Madison Avenue. The hotel became a political gathering place. Randolph, who was born in Keyser, W.Va., was chief clerk of the Board of Supervisors of Elections in Baltimore and chaired the Metro Democratic Organization's executive committee.

I'll fess up that many members of my family were rock-ribbed old-time Republicans. I was advised to stay clear of the Tenth Ward (Greenmount, Biddle, Ensor, Chase) — the political wellspring of the urban Democrat type. The Tenth Warders did not leave behind fancy monuments, but there remains a swimming pool for Ambrose Kennedy, one of the ward's biggest chiefs.

I would have loved to hear Thomas Francis McNulty sing "The Star-Spangled Banner." He was the three-time sheriff of Baltimore and a Tenth Ward power. Accounts say he was blessed with a powerful voice and "helped sing Grover Cleveland into the Presidency." His son, also a Thomas F., went on to be city Democratic chairman. One story described him as an "old-line Northeast Baltimore wheelman" and "salty regular" in the "Coggins-Gallagher machine." I knew the son as the owner of radio station WWIN, whose broadcast tower stood at Greenmount and 28th. It was a big deal in the neighborhood. The extended Coggins family, also family friends, lived nearby.

Loretta Byrne, whose name never appeared on a ballot, lived a few doors away on Ilchester Avenue. She may have been the most powerful person of them all. She was a friend of my Aunt Cora O'Hare. Both walked the streets of Charles Village in the pre-dawn hours to make the first Mass at Saints Philip and James Church. Loretta was the secretary to the city's director of public works. She could have any alley or sidewalk paved, quickly. She was also a great cook and baker. Loretta ruled with a smile and a cake tin. She was awesome.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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