Frank DeFilippo: Not the Ink Blue State People Think It Is

Former U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella (R) with Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) in 2018. Morella is one of several Republicans who have thrived politically in Democratic Maryland. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

It came as no shock or surprise a while back when Connie Morella, the former Republican congresswoman from Montgomery County, endorsed Democrat Joe Biden for president.

Morella, like the two dozen other Republican formers – governors, mayors, members of Congress – who joined her, harks back to a time of traditional Republicanism in Maryland when, in fact, the GOP was the state’s liberal party – the party of Lincoln, to those of a certain age, before the vainglorious and ruinous policies of President Trump corrupted it. But to be fair, the GOP was in decline well before the cropper arrived.

In their time, they were known locally as McKeldin Republicans and nationally as Rockefeller Republicans – the former the two-time mayor of Baltimore (1943-47, 1963-67) and two-term governor of Maryland (1951-59), Theodore R. McKeldin Jr., the latter the governor of New York and later the fill-in vice president, Nelson A. Rockefeller, when Gerald Ford assumed the presidency from the fallen Richard M. Nixon.

And it was in 1952 that McKeldin was chosen to deliver the nominating speech for Dwight D. Eisenhower at the Republican National Convention in Chicago. (McKeldin’s speech was written by Gerald W. Johnson, a former Baltimore Sun editorial writer, friend and colleague of H.L. Mencken, and prominent author and historian of the South.)

If they were around today, you can bet the condo they’d be, like Morella, either bolting to Biden or remaining on the sidelines to watch the elephants go by.

They were a small but committed band, out-numbered, out-voted and, more often than not, out-maneuvered, but occasionally more right than wrong as they proved at the polls, often with the help of vendable Democrats – Charles McC. Mathias Jr., delegate, Congressman, U.S. Senator; J. Glenn Beall Jr., delegate, Congressman, U.S. Senator; Gilbert Gude, Maryland senator, Congressman; Newton Steers, Maryland senator, Congressman; George Hughes, Maryland Senator and father of Frances Anne Glendening, to mention a few.

The state Republican party chairman through much of the 1960s was David Scull, who was married to the sister of Blair Lee 3d, both progeny of Col. E. Brooke Lee, for decades the Democratic political boss of Montgomery County.

And among the non-elected officeholders were Baltimore GOP activists David Shay; Walter Black, eventually a federal judge; Kitty Massenburg, GOP national committeewoman and Black’s sister; Eldred Rinehart, GOP national committeeman. Among the Black GOP leaders of the era were Archie Jones, of South Baltimore, and Marshall Jones (no relation), a funeral director from West Baltimore and head of the city’s election board when McKeldin was mayor. (Interestingly, but not surprising, McKeldin’s political factotum, William “Sweetie” Addelson, was a Democrat.)

And, like it or not, count Spiro T. Agnew among the McKeldin-Rockefeller Republicans until they diverged in 1964. In that year, Agnew endorsed Barry Goldwater for president, but McKeldin refused, choosing, instead, to publicly endorse President Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Democrat.

But Agnew was as slippery as a fresh-caught flounder. He returned to the Rockefeller camp, supporting the New York governor for president in 1968, even visiting Rockefeller at his New York City office to encourage the run. But Rockefeller disappointed Agnew on the day of the anticipated announcement.

Rockefeller humiliated Agnew in the State House reception room, packed with local and national political reporters, where Agnew had set up a television set to exult in the celebratory declaration that backfired when Rockefeller announced that he would not seek the presidency.

The Republican hey-days in Maryland were the 1950s-60s. White-flight to the suburbs was still just a trickle in Baltimore, and Black Democratic voting would not become an influential factor until the 1960s with the arrival of the Civil Rights and Voting Right Acts.

Prince George’s County was still largely rural and under control of the Sasser machine and later, its successor, the O’Malley machine. PeeGee was yet to become the Black enclave and electoral powerhouse that it is today.

Gentrification of the District of Columbia was still an urban renewal blueprint and had not yet begun to price Blacks over the line and into the less expensive county. Prince George’s is now 75% minority.

Through its growing pains, however, Prince George’s elected Republican Lawrence Hogan Sr., father of Maryland’s current governor, as its county executive (1978-82). Hogan senior was hardly a Republican cut from the McKeldin or Mathias mold, however. And before Hogan, another Republican executive was William W. Gullett (1970-74). Following Hogan, Democrats took over and have reigned ever since.

Montgomery County has long fashioned itself as a good-government county more so than a liberal encampment. Yet from the 1930s forward, its Democratic politics was under the iron-fisted rule of Col. Lee. When Montgomery finally wriggled out from under Lee’s domineering thumb, it elected a Republican, Jim Gleason, as county executive (1970-78).

In the 1960s-70s, the Women’s Democratic Club emerged as a formidable response to the restrictions the Hatch Act placed on federal workers. While the men of Montgomery County were downtown at their Hatched government jobs, the women ran the politics back home.

And in another of those hairpin turns, Blair Lee 3d gave up his Maryland Senate seat in 1962 to run a losing campaign for the U.S. Senate. Lee, the third, recaptured his old seat in the Maryland Senate in 1966 by running as a reform candidate against his father’s machine. Nonetheless, Montgomery sent as many Republicans to Congress over the years as it did Democrats.

An FDR favorite

Much of Maryland’s liberal Republican tradition traces to Western Maryland, where the coal miners’ and railroad unions, and the concerns of working men and women, helped to shape attitudes and party policy. Democrats, by contrast, were the rearguard party, often resisting equal rights, even assailing Blacks, with much of the animosity originating on the Eastern Shore.

None was more influential than Rep. Davey Lewis, author of the Social Security Act and a stack of other social welfare legislation as the Congressman from Western Maryland (which then included Montgomery County).

Lewis started working in the mines at age nine, read the law, went to the state legislature and later to Congress. Lewis began his political life as a Republican but eventually converted to Democrat. Lewis was a favorite of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Western Maryland’s brand of liberal Republicanism was felt in the State House for years. The area contributed several governors as well as socially progressive delegations to the General Assembly.

But it was from the state’s population center of Baltimore, at its high point of 900,000 in the early 1960s, that the state’s Republican elective politics radiated, largely because of McKeldin and the restive and growing Black population. Demonstrations for equal rights began in earnest in the 1950s, downtown at Read’s Drug Store and on Park Avenue, in efforts to desegregate lunch counters and Chinese restaurants.

McKeldin became governor by defeating the incumbent, William Preston Lane, Democrat of Western Maryland. Lane had raised the sales tax by a penny. McKeldin’s campaign was simple: Pennies for Lane. And everywhere Lane campaigned, McKeldin supporters and other anti-taxers tossed pennies at the Democrat.

Baltimore, as with most large cities at the time, functioned as a well-oiled political machine, with a central intelligence, or boss, controlling it all through satellite organizations across the city.

Though Democrats were the dominant political party, as they are today, contrary to political conventions, they didn’t control the franchise on political clubs.

In the golden age of McKeldin Republicanism (1950s), there were at least a half dozen GOP clubs in the city. The largest was the Frank Culotta Republican Club at Market Place, named for a distant cousin of frequent city candidate Samuel Culotta.

Its membership was an astonishing 500 men and 400 women. And in one of those toothsome political footnotes, in 1954 Samuel Culotta received the highest vote in the city for a House of Delegates seat while William Donald Schaefer compiled the lowest and lost.

There was a Black Republican club, the Theodore R. McKeldin Republican Club, at what was then known as Morgan College, now Morgan State University. And there was the Hopkins Republican Women’s Club, which refused to endorse ethnic candidates; the Alexander Hamilton Republican Club, made up mainly of lawyers, which met in the basement of the Southern Hotel; and, of course, the effervescent Young Republicans Club.

Today, there are more registered independents in Baltimore than Republicans, who number about 30,000. There are roughly 10 times more Democrats, about 300,000. Blacks comprise 69% of the city’s population.

Maryland recently marked the appointment of the first Black Republican woman, Dr. Brenda Thiam, from Western Maryland, to the House of Delegates. But it was Harry Cole, of Baltimore, who was the first Black Republican elected to the Maryland Senate in 1954, the same year McKeldin swept to a second term as governor. And Cole later became the first Black judge appointed to the Maryland Court of Appeals.

The object lesson to those on the outside looking in is that Maryland to this day is not the ink-blue state that is presented to the nation by analysts and pundits. Maryland is more Black than blue, more Democratic by tradition than belief.

Remove the populated cluster of counties along the I-95 corridor and the rest of Maryland is, if not red, at least hot pink. Take a close look as the election returns roll in.

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.