Frank DeFilippo: Legislative Hijinks and Lowlifes

Aerial view of Annapolis. Historic Annapolis photo

Every new session of the General Assembly is a joyous jumble of the personal and political where the past and the present meet the future in an elaborate dance of legislation.

It is, in a sense, a time warp. In politics, as in sports, it’s tough letting go of yesterday – the hijinks and the low life in the legislature, the sidebars to dramatic events that have enlivened the colonial State House. These walls not only talk, but they reverberate with history as well as consequential histrionics.

Oh, there’ll be hugs and howdys, talk of toll roads and pre-K, but the mood of the moment will be more of Darwin than Kirwan, a testament to bygone decades, if not centuries. Little is forgotten in the haunted halls of memories, all to savor and enjoy during relaxed but telltale moments. The past is always present.

So when the General Assembly convenes on Wednesday, put the moment in a time capsule. Freeze it forever, or at least as long as last year’s snowball. Here are some reference points to the past that are recalled in the lounges and the corners and crannies of the State House:

The State House, lest anyone forget, is America’s oldest still in continuous use, since 1772. It’s where George Washington resigned his commission as commander in-chief of the Continental Army, and where the Treaty of Paris was ratified on January 14, 1784.

Frank
Frank A. DeFilippo

It’s also where, on St. Patrick’s Day, in 1966, House Speaker Marvin Mandel had to gavel the House to adjournment because its members were too drunk to conduct legislative business.

“This House cannot continue in this manner,” Mandel shouted as he cracked his gavel.

And it was just 33 years earlier, on the night prohibition was repealed on Dec. 5, 1933, that the State House bootlegger was officially notified to discontinue his thriving business. He was served notice by the policeman on duty in the State House. The story appeared on the front page of The New York Times.

And, of course, there was always Del. Willie Rush’s Irish party, toasting not so much the Catholic St. Patrick, but the Orangeman that Willie was as well as a testament to his Baltimore County tavern.

Many a new reporter assigned to cover the Senate first received a Baptism by bourbon. Tenderfoot reporters were routinely assigned to cover the Senate – which was considered at the time less challenging than the House because of its smaller size and greater decorum. It was kind of like the Cave of Winds. Boring.

The first order of business was always an introduction to Sen. Fred Malkus, of the Eastern Shore, in the 1960’s chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. The first thing Senator Malkus did was to escort new reporters to the huge safe in his office and say, “Let’s see what kind of a reporter you are.”

The safe contained all of the bills that had been referred to his committee as well as a case of bourbon, Early Times. So, at 9 in the morning, knocking back bourbon with the Silver Fox on the first day as a State House reporter was how legislation was revealed and reporters were initiated.

And on the Senate floor, the glass in the inkwell of Malkus’ desk contained not water but three fingers of a transparent liquid to fuel his dithyrambic diatribes.

But Malkus never faulted a reporter for failing to keep up with him. In 1964, Alabama Gov. George Wallace was campaigning for president on the Eastern Shore and held a rally at the Cambridge Armory in Malkus’ home town.

As was his custom, Wallace was railing against pointy-headed bureaucrats and the liberal media, turning the crowd ugly and nasty. And just when the angry crowd was ready to move on the reporters, Malkus stepped forward and raised his hand: “They’re okay. They’re friends of mine from Annapolis.”

In that very same enrollment year, it was easy to discern the rapid decline and fall of Baltimore political boss Jack Pollack. So diminished had his power become that he couldn’t even muster enough votes to remove a mere Senate reading clerk, Donald Hurwitz, of Baltimore – despite all of the oratory from his Senate son-in-law, Paul Dorf, and the strategic phone calls from Pollack’s daughter and Dorf’s wife, Rhona.

And here it is important to note that Larry Young wasn’t the first legislator to be expelled from the General Assembly. That honor went to Irving “Coddy” Friedman, a delegate from Baltimore, in a tit-for-tat power play in 1966 by Mandel against Pollack.

H. Winship Wheatley, of Prince George’s County, was the Senate majority leader back in the day, when each county had a single senator under the old unit rule, which prevailed in Maryland before the Supreme Court’s “one man, one vote” decision.

Sen. Margaret Schweinhaut had been elected from Montgomery County. The courtly Winship Wheatley called Schweinhaut and told her that, by tradition, the senators from Prince George’s and Montgomery counties always roomed together.

He asked her: “Which side of the bed to you want?”

And somewhere along the line, Schweinhaut’s vote was critical on a piece of legislation. As part of the exchange, she demanded the creation of an Office on Aging. And she got it.

‘Beating a dead horse to death’

Among the great legislative legends are the marvelous malapropisms of former House majority leader W. Dale Hess, of Harford County – “Hessisms,” as they were dubbed by the press.

“We’re beating a dead horse to death,” is a favorite.

Emphasizing the need for a second Bay Bridge during a floor debate on the issue, Hess explained: “All roads lead into the Bay.”

On the same subject, Hess defended the bridge proposal of Gov. J. Millard Tawes: “This deal ain’t no different than any other deal the governor got us into.” And, “The governor is leading us down the primrose path.”

Finally, Hess admonished members of the House not to “conjugate” in the hallways.

Another classic line that is still alive and well in the State House was uttered during debate more than 50 years ago by Del. Xavier Aragona, of Prince George’s County: “This issue is beginning to degenerate into a matter of principle.”

That line, it should not be forgotten, made The New Yorker magazine as an italicized end-note for which the publication was celebrated.

Enshrined with it is the statement of the late Sen. Joseph Staszak, a Baltimore tavern owner, who was asked by Sen. Manny Emanuel, of Prince George’s County, during a floor debate if his vote for a liquor bill was a conflict of interest. Staszak replied: “How does that conflict with my interest?”

On another occasion, information leaked that Baltimore political majordomo Irv Kovens had promised two Baltimore Liquor Board inspectors to Staszak if he would vote against confirmation of the late George H. Hocker, Tawes’ button man, to the Board of Regents. Staszak was confronted, and replied: “What’s wrong with that?”

In January 1963, members of the House stood and applauded as their speaker, A. Gordon Boone, of Baltimore County, resigned and was led off to prison by U.S. Marshals in Maryland’s first savings and loan scandal.

And here’s a footnote that could have changed the tide of history. When Boone was removed, Tawes’ gray eminence, Hocker, insisted that the speakership be awarded to Del. John McGuire, of Baltimore County, in a deal he’d made with Michael “Iron Mike” Birmingham, the county’s Democratic boss. But there was a revolt in the House.

Del. Thomas Hunter Lowe turned the entire Eastern Shore delegation against the proposal and in favor of Marvin Mandel to succeed Boone. The rest, as they say, is history.

Later, upon becoming governor on a cold January day in 1969, Mandel ordered the fireplace in the governor’s office unblocked so he and visitors could enjoy the warmth and cozy and persuasive ambiance of a crackling fire. On removing the seals, workmen found a microphone dangling down the chimney just above the unused fire pit, a few feet from the governor’s desk. There was no way of knowing how long the microphone had been hanging there.

U.S. Marshals once again descended on the State House to arrest a member, Del. Turk Scott, of Baltimore, as part of a crackdown on drug dealers. Scott was later murdered, gangland style, in the underground garage of the Baltimore high-rise where he lived.

And in one of the truly bizarre episodes in General Assembly history, Sen. Frank McCourt, of Baltimore, literally dropped out of sight and out of touch and wound up in India with his girl friend and his guru.

Sen. James A. Pine, of Baltimore County, needed McCourt’s vote desperately against a bill that would have removed the cap on what was then called revolving credit. Later, word circulated that McCourt had surfaced in New York, and Pine was so determined that he dispatched an escort to make certain that McCourt returned to Annapolis.

At the appointed time, the State House emptied onto the steps where legislators and employees were sitting and waiting to see whether McCourt had made it back to cast his vote. He had, and he voted with Pine to keep legal limits on department store credit card interest.

Joe Steffen, Louise Beauregard and more

We heard a lot in his days about Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich’s hit man, Joseph Steffen, and his collection of statuettes and figurines such as the Grim Reaper and Darth Vader. He must have gotten the idea from Sen. Jack Cade, of Anne Arundel County. Because whenever the Budget and Taxation Committee was reviewing agency budgets, Cade would set a skull on his desk as a warning to bureaucrats.

And when the genial giant rose and hitched up his britches, you knew some bureaucrat was in for a delousing.

And all Del. Pete Rawlings had to do to strike fear in a bureaucrat’s heart was to wave his copy of “The Art of War” during a budget hearing.

When Sen. Larry Levitan, of Montgomery County, was chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, somehow breakfast would magically appear when hearings were scheduled on Saturday mornings. On one of those occasions, while members were tucking into their coffee and Danish, Chairman Levitan said: “I’d like to thank Mrs. Beauregard for providing breakfast this morning.” Whereupon, members went into gag reflex mode and pretended to choke and toss. (Louise Beauregard was an amusing local eccentric and registered lobbyist with no particular allegiances or interests.)

But the times that full attendance was guaranteed at committee hearings were the days when Sen. Tommie Broadwater, of Prince George’s County, brought trays of his celebrated ribs as a treat.

And Tommie was never a man given to lengthy speeches. A sure way to empty the chamber was when the Senate was in full-throated filibuster.

On one such occasion, the chamber was empty when suddenly Broadwater decided to speak. The chamber filled in a hurry as Tommie rose to his feet.

“Mr. President,” Tommie intoned, “I have only two words to say about this – Im Possible.”

And speaking of filibusters, here’s a parliamentary maneuver that doesn’t appear in “Robert’s Rules of Order.” Way back in the bad old days of 1967, Jervis Finney, then a senator from Baltimore County, was floor managing a bill for the Agnew administration that would have abolished so-called free-play video machines in Baltimore County. Sens. Roy Staten and Jim Pine, two old hands at Senate parliamentary tactics, were working Jervy over pretty good.

And this quote is directly from a story that was written at the time: “At one point during the debate, Finney confused and amused the Senate by saying, ‘I move that the bill be left at the printer’s’.”

Finney, who’d also been U.S. attorney for Maryland, later became Gov. Ehrlich’s Inspector Javert.

It was always a marvel to see how starched and pressed Jervy and Sen. Jack Lapides, of Baltimore, appeared. Together, they had the world’s largest collection of white button-down shirts.

And every time Jack Lapides rose to speak on a bill, no matter which side he was on, you can bet the votes went the other way. All anyone had to do was watch the tote board as green became red, or red became green.

Winning passage of controversial legislation is more often a matter of pluck than skill. In the waning days of the 1970 session, the Mandel administration didn’t have a single vote to spare in the Senate to enact its showcase transportation reorganization bill. It had been promised the vote of Sen. Joseph Bertorelli, of Baltimore, who had been partially paralyzed by a stroke.

On the night of the vote, Bertorelli complained that he felt ill and was going home to Baltimore. But lobbyists for the administration – and here names are withheld even though the statute of limitations has expired – took charge in an unconventional fashion. They hid Bertorelli’s wheelchair until after the vote was taken. When the legislation was passed, with Bertorelli’s vote, the senator was given back his wheelchair so he could go home.

(Context is everything. As cruel and as heartless as that may sound today, a half century ago, before the era of heightened sensitivities and social awareness, it was considered an insider’s prank in the State House that even Bertorelli enjoyed in the re-telling. Bertorelli, incidentally, had played tenor saxophone in a nightclub on Baltimore’s randy Block, as had former Baltimore Mayor Clarence “Du” Burns.)

Bertorelli’s state-provided driver at the time, memorably, was none other than election maven and William Donald Schaefer’s sidekick, Gene Raynor – Raynor’s lowly start on his way to a high-ranking position in state politics.

And Bertorelli, after his stroke and before he was confined to a wheelchair, had difficulty walking. Before a crucial vote, the Senator got up and began shuffling across the chamber floor, aided by a cane.

William “Bip” Hodges, the senator from South Baltimore, told Bertorelli to get back to his seat for a critical vote. Bertorelli stopped smack in front of the rostrum while the microphone was on and said in his rumble-strip voice that ricocheted throughout the chamber: “I got to take a [bleep.].” You fill in the blank.

Hodges later lost his voice box to cancer, He, like others similarly afflicted, used a device called an electrolarynx to project his speech. A fellow legislator from Baltimore’s old 6th District, the crafty Paul Weisengoff, named the hand-held device Hodges’ “Norelco,” as it resembled the electric shaver.

In the bad old days, in the customary parlance of Annapolis, the word “sponsor” meant a signatory or author of a piece of legislation. Weisengoff’s usage, however, had a different meaning. Sponsor was defined by Weisengoff as securing someone to pick up the tab for lunch or dinner, maybe a lobbyist, or fellow legislator who needed help with a bill, or even a reporter in pursuit of a story.

One of Governor Mandel’s premier lobbyists and factotums was the late Frank “ChooChoo” Harris, a railroad engineer and former delegate from Cecil County. Harris achieved distinction in his own right when he offered a Republican member of the House a set of state seal cufflinks before an important vote.

The offended lawmaker rose to his feet, denounced Harris by claiming that his vote could not be bought for a cheap pair of cufflinks. Harris asked: “What will it take?”

The late speaker, Thomas Hunter Lowe, was an Eastern Shoreman who could be long on decorum and short on humor. One fine spring day, Del. Ned Malone, of Baltimore County, spotted a person on Main Street dressed in the seasonal costume of an Easter bunny.

Malone brought the bunny to the House chamber to the amusement and uproarious laughter of the delegates. Lowe was not amused. He crashed his gavel and ordered state troopers to eject the Easter bunny from the House chamber and place it under arrest.

The legendary legislative wizard, the late Sen. Harry McGuirk, of Baltimore, was given his nickname “Soft Shoes” by Bertorelli, who observed of McGuirk, “He just kind of sneaks up on you like he’s wearing soft shoes.”

And once, during a floor debate, Sen. Verda Welcome, of Baltimore, rose to accuse McGuirk of some dastardly deed: “I know the Senate rules prevent me from mentioning a member by name,” Welcome shouted, “but they call him ‘Soft Shoes’.”

McGuirk had a reputation for his ability to read two bills simultaneously. He confided, though, that he didn’t actually read them. He merely placed them side by side and looked for differences.

And poor Sen. Welcome. She was later shot in the buttock by a disenchanted House member from her own 4th District, Del. Ernie Young, who did time for the crime and went on to become a croupier in Las Vegas.

The combustible issue of the 1963 session was a proposal to outlaw slot machines in four Southern Maryland counties where they were legal at the time, a promise extracted from Gov. Tawes in exchange for an endorsement in the 1962 general election.

‘I got mine, did you get yours?’

In the middle of heated debate, then-Del. Clarence M. Mitchell III rose to announce that he had been “offered a bribe by a man in a dark coat and hat.” A grand jury investigation followed the charge but produced only this finding: The antic Ernie Young, Mitchell’s seat-mate, had leaned over and whispered this needle to Mitchell, “I got mine, did you get yours”?

And here’s another story that could have changed the course of history. Back in 1968, a story appeared about Congressman George Fallon, of Baltimore, being more or less on the take from the road building industry. He was, after all, chairman of the House Public Works Committee. That year, his primary opponent was Sen. J. Joseph Curran Jr., of Baltimore City, who was then chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The next day, on a flight to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Curran was asked for reaction to the story. And Curran said: “I’m running for Congress on one issue – the Vietnam War. I have no comment.” Curran lost by 900 votes. Two years later Baltimore Del. Paul Sarbanes toppled Fallon.

During House floor debate over Gov. Spiro T. Agnew’s 1967 proposed budget, Sarbanes denounced the spending program as “Agnewsticism.” Asked for a response to Sarbanes’ descriptive neologism, Agnew called the charge a “Sarbanality.”

Those were the days, too, when James Clark was regarded as the Abe Lincoln of the Maryland Senate, and Senate President William S. James had a ready quote from Shakespeare for whatever the occasion.

And it’s still possible to envision Louise Gore trailing her full-length mink coat into the State House canteen and, with a straight face, placing a taunting order for eggs Benedict. Gore, after all, owned the Jockey Club, one of Washington’s premier dining spots whose patrons included First Lady Nancy Reagan.

And Sen. Carl Friedler, of Baltimore County, trying to decide whether he was a state senator or Lenny Bruce, the comedian. And Joe Bonvegna, from Baltimore City, cigar in hand, holding court from his chair outside the Hilton Hotel bar.

And William “Sweetie” Addelson, the lobbyist who ran a nightly poker game in the hallway at the Hilton Hotel for select legislators. Every legislator who played a hand or two always walked away with winnings.

And who can forget Baltimore City lobbyist Janet Hoffman’s expressive face. She sat in the galleries, and when she lost a bill, her face collapsed into a frown, and when she won, it creased into a broad smile.

Behind the fun and games and long-ago names, it is also prudent to keep in mind the ominous words that have been attributed to various wits and wiseacres: “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.