Harry Roe Hughes, Maryland’s soft-spoken 57th governor, who won an improbable victory in the 1978 Democratic primary and was a lifelong champion of environmental causes, died Wednesday at his home in Denton. He was 92.
Hughes’ political career in Maryland spanned 32 years, beginning with his election to the House of Delegates in 1954. He moved to the state Senate four years later, where he served until 1971. He became majority leader in 1965 – and often found himself at odds with his fellow Eastern Shore lawmakers over issues of racial segregation and legislative representation, among others.
“He was just a great leader,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) told his colleagues at the opening of a Senate floor session Wednesday evening. “Took on issues ahead of his time. He would take on the entire Eastern Shore delegation.”
After a two-year stint as chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, Hughes joined the administration of Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) in 1971 as the state’s first Transportation secretary. In that role, he consolidated several quasi-independent agencies under the department’s purview, led the state purchase of Friendship Airport in Baltimore, which later became BWI Airport, and helped build the Baltimore subway.
“It was really interesting. I think I enjoyed that job more than any other job I’ve had,” Hughes told Capital News Service in a 2014 interview.
The MDOT headquarters in Hanover now bears his name.
But Hughes clashed with other members of the administration over the way contracts were being awarded for subway construction, and resigned in protest in 1977.
That act of political defiance won Hughes many admirers and propelled him into the 1978 Democratic primary for governor. Running against Lt. Gov. Blair Lee III – who had been acting governor for several months while Mandel temporarily stepped down to fight corruption charges and health woes – and Baltimore County Executive Ted Venetoulis – Hughes was a decided underdog at first.
“I remember reading some of the news coverage when he first decided to run and they were putting him down a little bit,” former Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) recalled in an interview Wednesday. “I remember him being described as a lost ball in tall weeds or something like that. I thought to myself at the time, ‘They’re underestimating him. This is a man of real integrity and presence.’ You knew when he was in the room.”
A rare front-page endorsement of Hughes by The Baltimore Sun just days before the primary helped propel him to the Democratic nomination, and he won the general election easily over former U.S. Sen. J. Glenn Beall Jr. (R).
“The integrity issue became ‘the’ issue [in 1978] and he went on to win,” Glendening said.
During his tenure, Hughes focused on transportation – including enacting tougher drunk driving laws – and tax reform. He also created a commission to examine the causes of racially motivated violence.
But his defining legacy was his work on the environment.
“I tell people this all the time: In many ways, he was the turning point for the environmental focus of Maryland,” Glendening said. “He made ‘Save the Bay’ a reality; he did something about it, the most important of which was the creation of the Critical Areas Commission.
“I served on that commission for 10 years because I represented the county governments as former president of [the Maryland Association of Counties], and I saw what we were able to do because of Harry Hughes and the areas that have been saved, the protection of the bay. He understood that it was about the rivers and the creeks that flow into the bay. So what I tell people is, anything that I was able to, like Smart Growth or the major acquisition of open space, that I was standing on the shoulders of Harry Hughes.”
Several political leaders noted Hughes’ environmental work in their statements of tribute Wednesday.
“Gov. Harry Hughes was a friend whose legacy as a public servant will never be forgotten,” said Speaker of the House Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). “I will always remember him for his steadfast dedication to the Chesapeake Bay.”
Former state attorney general Douglas F. Gansler (D) tweeted: “A son of the Eastern Shore and staunch defender of the Chesapeake Bay, he was Maryland’s first true environmentally conscious governor.”
Hughes’ first term was not without controversy. He split from his lieutenant governor, Samuel Bogley, largely over the issue of abortion rights, and Bogley wound up running for LG on a ticket headed by state Sen. Harry McGuirk (D). Hughes tapped a former state Senate colleague, J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D), to be his running mate. Hughes defeated McGuirk in the primary and defeated then-Anne Arundel County executive Robert A. Pascal (R) in the general election.
As governor, Hughes held weekly news conferences.
“Having a press conference every week makes it so they don’t have to call you,” he told Capital News Service. “You’re available to answer questions.”
That personal openness and his conviction that government ought to be transparent were hallmarks of his public career, admirers said.
“Gov. Hughes was a reformer who governed with absolute integrity and who never forgot that he was a servant of the people,” said Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D).
Several leaders said Hughes was generous with his time when it came to advising up-and-coming politicians – and when interacting with everyday voters.
“Harry Hughes was a statesman,” said Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D). “Honest, kind and a dedicated public servant. He was also a beloved friend and mentor. Maryland is poorer today for his passing.”
The second half of Hughes’ second term as governor was racked in part by the savings-and-loan crisis unfolding throughout the country. While he put together a plan to insure that depositors recovered their investments, the crisis took a political toll, and Hughes finished third in the 1986 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, behind then-Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski and then-Rep. Michael Barnes.
But Hughes remained civically engaged for the rest of his life. He served on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, did environmental work, and took on prominent roles when asked – liked heading a commission that Glendening formed to deal with the pfiesteria crisis in Eastern Shore waterways in 1997.
Hughes’ wife, Patricia, died in 2010 after a long bout with Alzheimer’s disease. He is survived by two daughters, Ann Fink and Elizabeth Hughes, and a grandson. No funeral arrangements have been announced, though Hughes will be buried next to his wife along the Choptank River.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), who called Hughes “a longtime friend and Maryland legend whom I deeply admired,” said Maryland flags would be flown at half-staff until sunset after Hughes’ internment in his honor.
“We will give him the celebration of life that he truly deserves,” Hogan said.
Here is a sampling of other statements about Hughes’ passing:
U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D) – who in 1978 was on a ticket with Blair Lee III, which was defeated by Hughes:
“Today the State of Maryland lost a true champion, a man of intellect and integrity, who was a mentor and a dear friend. I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of former Governor Harry Hughes. He was a friend for over half a century. I had the great honor of serving with Harry in the Maryland State Senate for five years and, thereafter, working with him when he was Maryland’s Secretary of Transportation. Harry was a leader on tax fairness, education funding, transportation and infrastructure, and improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. He was a man of great decency, compassion, and empathy. My thoughts and sympathies are with Ann, Elizabeth, and the entire Hughes family during this difficult time.”
Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R)
“Incredibly saddened to learn of Governor Harry Hughes’ passing today. Gov. Hughes served the people of Maryland with distinction, and was a fierce protector of our Chesapeake Bay. My wife Monica and I extend our deepest sympathies to Gov. Hughes’ family and friends, and pray for their comfort during this time of grief.”
Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn
“I’m honored to follow the path he set to unify all transportation agencies as one MDOT and privileged to work in the building that bears his name.”
Maryland Democratic Party Chair Maya Rockeymoore Cummings
“Governor Hughes’ life and career was a testament to his leadership, judgement, and commitment to making Maryland the best place to live, work, and conduct business. As a two-time former Maryland Democratic Party Chair, we especially honor his contributions to building our Party and extend our deepest condolences to his family.”
Caroline County Commissioners
“The County Commissioners were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of former Governor Harry Hughes this morning.
Caroline County is very proud of its native son for his long history of public service to our great state. Closer to home, he will be remembered as a brilliant and generous man, who was a much-loved member of our small and close-knit community.
We are comforted by the knowledge that Governor Hughes is reunited in Heaven with his Creator and his beloved wife Pat. On behalf of all the residents of Caroline County, we extend our deepest sympathy to the Governor’s daughters Ann and Beth, his family, and his many friends.
The Commissioners have ordered County flags to fly to fly at half-staff through the date of the Governor’s funeral.”
Bruce DePuyt and Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.