Death is God’s way of telling us to slow down.
For some, the brakes apply early, for others, late, expected and occasionally welcome, a celestial pennywhistle beckoning us into the darkness.
For Rep. Elijah Cummings, the South Baltimore son of sharecroppers, the calling came early, by modern actuarial standards, at the ripe young age of 68, in full flower as a member of Congress and as the ex officio conscience and major domo of Baltimore when absent any other display of municipal leadership.
For Thomas “Young Tommy” D’Alesandro III, the princeling of the politically charged family, the summons arrived as if on schedule, at 90, a lovable rascal and raconteur who was content that he had served his city well in turbulent times and who, on more than one occasion, was moved to tears by the chaos and destruction around him on riotous nights.
That was all within a week. But the past couple of years have been rough on Maryland’s political community. Death is breaking up that old gang of ours – Busch, Mitchell, Hughes, Paterakis, Kamenetz, Hayden – to name a few in the lengthening shadow of departures.
It seems that suddenly the state’s entire political structure is collapsing. But in politics, as in life, there are times, seasons and cycles that follow and replace that which went before in generational order – some worse, some better and some no discernable change at all.
And now, Thomas V. Mike Miller, who is still very much with us and, with a nod to the traditional Italian blessing, or is it a curse – cent’anni (may he live to be a hundred) – is relinquishing the Senate presidency, which he has held longer than anyone in history, to a young tyke from East Baltimore, William Ferguson, half Miller’s age at 36, the consensus candidate from among a half dozen competitors. Ferguson’s nomination will be voted on by the full Senate on opening day in January 2020.
Miller has been battling metastatic prostate cancer. He will retain his district seat in the Senate where he represents Calvert County and a sliver of Prince George’s and Charles.
Ferguson’s ascendency resolves the succession question that has been birddogging senators for nearly a year, but it raises another set of problems about Ferguson’s moxie and Machiavellian handicraft for managing a chamber of egos. There is a wariness, too, about too much power being concentrated in the Baltimore region at the expense of more populous areas of the state.
A larger question looms. Will Miller’s continued presence in the Senate, with a pocketful of chits collected over more than three decades, provide a competing undercurrent to Ferguson’s presidency?
It has been a season of requiems.
Begin with Young Tommy. It is often said of the dead that they would have wanted it this or that way. Life ended the way Tommy wanted: He was known more as Nancy Pelosi’s brother than as Baltimore’s former mayor. He was rarely happy as mayor but proud and delighted that his kid sister became the most powerful woman in America and third in line to the presidency.
He once described the job as mayor: “They bring you a platter of shit every morning. And after about a month you realize that it’s the same platter of shit every day.” Tommy walked away from City Hall after one term.
Tommy presided over a city in turmoil over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. It was an occupied city and under martial law – city police, State Police, National Guard. Tommy wept. On another, later night of riots, Tommy and Gov. Marvin Mandel were bivouacked at the Fifth Regiment Armory, monitoring the devastation. Tommy wept.
At a meeting in Mandel’s Annapolis office, Tommy was engaged in a standoff with William Boucher, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Committee, over an issue important to the city.
“The trouble with you, Boucher,” Tommy said, “is that you think you’re Duncan Hines. Everything has to have your approval. Duncan Hines. That’s who you think you are.”
Little can be said about Cummings beyond what he has said himself in Congress and on the streets of Baltimore over the years except to add that two former presidents, a former first lady and the speaker of the House celebrated his life at his funeral last week. That is tribute enough.
Cummings was appropriately and almost contemporarily named. The prophet Elijah devoted his life to fighting “many years of corrupt kings and increasing evil until wickedness filled the land.” Cummings presided over the House Oversight Committee with that thought in mind.
As a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, and later, as its speaker pro tem, Cummings was mainly a background figure. He blossomed in Congress, where he landed through a special election, beginning with his ascendency to ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee doing battle with its chairman, the headline hog and long-gone Republican, Darrell Issa.
Then Donald Trump became president, and two years later Democrats won control of the House. Cummings was now in charge. The son of Pentecostal preachers and sharecroppers evolved as one of the three most important committee chairmen in Congress, in tandem charge of the impeachment inquiry into Trump.
For that, Cummings earned a Tweet bomb from Trump and a slap at Baltimore as a rodent-infested mess unfit for human habitation. Trump’s yacht once anchored in what had become Cumming’s district.
But it was during the Freddie Gray riots that Cummings earned his stripes as a calming voice when no other sounds of municipal leadership were heard, a thunderclap baritone amplified still further by a bullhorn that helped restore order to a quadrant of the city where life is cheap and crime is easy.
Cummings left an estate of unfinished business. His will be an unquiet grave.
House Speaker Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel) died early in the year, leaving the gavel to his understudy, Del. Adrienne Jones, of Baltimore County. She has made the rounds and issued the appropriate statements but has yet to be tested in the chess master’s game of managing the occasionally unruly House.
Harry R. Hughes was another casualty of time and deterioration, dead at 92 earlier this year. Hughes supplied Maryland with the urgently needed calm as governor after the uproarious Mandel years. The soft-spoken, easy-going Hughes was the unexpected victor following his resignation as Mandel’s transportation secretary over what he characterized as the “tainted” contract award process for the Baltimore Metro system. Hughes coasted along until a crisis slammed him, too – the state’s second savings and loan scandal.
Clayton Mitchell Jr., of Kent County, House speaker for six years, died in June at age 83. The bridge over Kent Narrows was re-named in his honor.
The earliest, unlikeliest death of all was that of Kevin Kamenetz, the Baltimore County executive, who died in 2018 of a heart attack at age 60. At the onset of his attack, Kamenetz eschewed professional responders’ help for fear of creating a neighborhood disturbance in the middle of the night. His sudden death changed the trajectory of the governor’s race that year and, possibly, for the future, regardless if he had won or lost.
And as important as any candidate or elected official were the backers behind them. Though Baltimore’s muffin man, John Paterakis, owner of H&S Bakery, died in 2016, it is a loss worth noting.
It used to be said in Baltimore politics that a candidate in search of campaign funds went to either of two destinations – furniture shopping in West Baltimore, where the well-healed Irv Kovens operated a seedy emporium, or in East Baltimore, where Paterakis ran his billion-dollar bakery empire from behind a card table. (Kovens died in 1989.)
Paterakis’ heirs carry on the tradition. His sons and other family members recently helped Baltimore Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young raise $250,000 toward his new-born mayoral campaign, a change of mind and heart after initially shrugging off interest.
And the closing obit for this edition came late last week with the death of Roger Hayden, the Republican who served as Baltimore County executive from 1990-94 and who was a member of the Board of Education when he died at 74.
The hope is that they leave behind only the very best regrets.