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Frank DeFilippo, sage observer of Md. politics, dies at age 93

Maryland Matters Columnist Frank DeFilippo at a December 2018 fundraising lunch. Maryland Matters photo.

Frank A. DeFilippo, a redoubtable chronicler of Maryland politics whose career dated back to the 1960’s and included a stint as a weekly columnist for Maryland Matters that lasted through 2021, died on Saturday. He was 93.

An announcement from Ruck Funeral Home in Towson said he “passed away peacefully in Baltimore.”

DeFilippo, who used elegant language and a rapier wit to skewer the state’s political classes, burst on the scene as a reporter for the Baltimore News-American in the early 1960’s after a stint on the newspaper’s copy desk. Later that decade, he became a State House reporter and also wrote a groundbreaking series on behind-the-scenes powerbrokers in Baltimore and how they manipulated civic affairs.

That series “really set a high bar for journalists for decades to come,” said Barry Rascovar, a former reporter and editor at The Baltimore Sun.

Written in December 1967, the piece got new life earlier this year, when it — and its 2019 reprisal in Maryland Matters — were featured in a New York Times column by former Evening Sun reporter Thomas B. Edsall, who wrote that “few people have tracked the evolution of a city’s establishment with more attention to detail and consequences” than DeFilippo.

DeFilippo’s career also included reporting stints on Capitol Hill and in the Lyndon Johnson White House.

Michael Olesker, who started as a sportswriter at the News-American in 1966 and later became a columnist at the Sun, recalled being in the News-American newsroom during the summer of 1968, when DeFilippo, covering the Republican National Convention in Miami, phoned in the story that Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew, who had only been in office for a year and a half, had been selected to be Richard Nixon’s running mate.

“He was a guy who lived politics,” Olesker said. “He lived and he loved it. Someone once asked him what he had for breakfast, and he said, ‘I eat politicians for breakfast.'”

Known as “Flip” to his friends and acquaintances, DeFilippo was a garrulous raconteur whose love for politics came through in all his writing, even as he regularly exposed politicians’ foibles and motivations that weren’t always apparent to readers and voters.

“He was an old-fashioned throwback reporter who loved the shenanigans and sleaziness of politicians and wrote about them in very colorful language,” Rascovar said.

Joann Rodgers, who was a desk-mate with DeFilippo at the News-American, said he was “already a legend in the newsroom” when she started at the paper, but he remained generous with his connections and sources.

“His rolodex was famous,” Rodgers said. “He had a legendary number of sources of people in state government and local government in the city that were on his list. There was just no one in government he couldn’t find or reach.”

DeFilippo “made it look easy” as he turned in deeply reported and elegantly written copy, but he also worked hard at the craft, Rodgers said.

“He will be very much missed by generations of journalists,” she said.

In some ways, the defining job of DeFilippo’s career was his time as press secretary, and later chief of staff, for the late Gov. Marvin Mandel (D), where he helped the administration usher through a raft of progressive legislation and a reinvention of state government but also witnessed corruption and personal scandals that temporarily drove Mandel from office. The experience helped shaped DeFilippo’s jaundiced view of politics, and led to countless stories, which he told with great verve.

One of DeFilippo’s most memorable columns for Maryland Matters focused on Mandel’s desire to help then-California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) win the Maryland primary during the 1976 presidential election — not because he valued Brown’s brand of politics so much, but because he hated former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, who was leading the presidential primary field at the time, due to perceived personal slights.

As press secretary, it was left to DeFilippo to inform the State House press corps, on the Friday before the July 4 weekend in 1973, that Mandel was divorcing his wife of 32 years, Barbara “Bootsie” Mandel, and intended to marry Jeanne Blackistone Dorsey, who came from a prominent family in St. Mary’s County. Both Rascovar and Olesker recall DeFilippo walking into a press room with a stack of news releases with the sordid details.

“Here’s your Fourth of July firecracker,” DeFilippo told the assembled reporters, who were rushing to finish their weekend stories so they could enjoy the long holiday weekend.

The Mandels had been high school sweethearts in Baltimore and Bootsie Mandel notably refused to give up her tenancy in Government House, the governor’s mansion, after the public announcement of the couple’s separation.

In an eerie coincidence, Bootsie Mandel died this week at the age of 103. Her funeral is scheduled for Friday in Pikesville.

“I was expecting to see Flip [at the funeral on Friday],” said Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City).

DeFilippo wrote a column in Maryland Matters to mark Bootsie Mandel’s 100th birthday in March of 2020. Then-Gov. Larry Hogan (R) had planned to host a party in her honor at Government House, but it was canceled due to the recent outbreak of COVID-19.

Friends said DeFilippo struggled for a time to find his professional footing and his voice after the Mandel administration. For a time, he ran a communications and public relations business — and Rosenberg signed him to help guide his first campaign for the House of Delegates, in 1982.

Rosenberg said he hired DeFilippo to help him with his campaign literature and media relations in part because of his writing skills, but also because he was running as a liberal political reformer, and relied on DeFilippo’s connections to “regulars” in the Northwest Baltimore Democratic organization. Until his death, DeFilippo lived for decades in the Cross Keys community of Northwest Baltimore and was a constituent of Rosenberg’s.

“Part of my strategy was to make contact with the good old b’hoys,” Rosenberg said.

Eventually, DeFilippo wrote columns for the News-American, the Evening Sun, City Paper and Splice Today. He was a political reporter for WMAR-TV in Baltimore, was a panelist on WJZ TV’s public affairs program “Square Off,” and hosted radio talk shows on WCBM and WBAL.

Rosenberg said he was struck by how DeFilippo, even late in his career, worked sources in the Department of Legislative Services to better understand the legislation he was writing about.

Chronicling the ‘comic opera’ of politics

DeFilippo wrote a weekly column for Maryland Matters from 2018 to 2021. He started writing when the publication was just a year old, and added instant credibility at a time when the website was scrambling to make its mark on Maryland politics. He also came cheap, demanding a 1970’s paycheck at a time when Maryland Matters couldn’t afford much more.

DeFilippo decided to stop writing regularly in late 2021, saying he was growing weary of the regular deadlines — though he temporarily filed with more frequency once the deadline pressure was off.

“I left Mount St. Mary’s College in 1959 with a degree in English and a portable typewriter, and I’ve been writing ever since,” he wrote in a message about his decision to retire.

DeFilippo’s six decades in the State House, Government House, White House, Congress and more gave him unique insight into the “comic opera” of politics, as he would say.

He contributed more than 180 columns to Maryland Matters, each of them filled with eloquent turns of phrase, lessons in state political history, and tales of some of the most interesting characters that have graced the political scene. And even late in his career, he was able to break news — once, memorably, with a 2021 column that the Hogan administration was looking to scale back the state’s Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program.

>> Related: Read all of Frank DeFilippo’s columns for Maryland Matters here. 

DeFilippo was the author of a book called “Hooked,” about The Block in Baltimore, and an unpublished manuscript he titled “Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.”

DeFillipo also wrote most of the headlines on his Maryland Matters columns. Some of the best included: “Health Care as Wealth Care,” “Vaxxing is vexing, but trying beats dying,” “General Assembly faces the music, votes to shame that tune,” and the award-winning “DeJoy to the world, your mail won’t come.”

A full list of DeFilippo’s survivors was not immediately available Thursday, but he is known to have a daughter Daniella, and a granddaughter. He was divorced from his wife, Beverly Epstein, who was a longtime news editor for WBAL-TV in Baltimore.

DeFilippo will be memorialized in a private ceremony and interned at Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in his name to Gilchrist Hospice Towson.

In a farewell note to Maryland Matters readers, DeFilippo summed up the job of a columnist: “Always searching for the ironic, the tragic, the twist or turn of fate, the memorable phrase. To tell it in an entertaining way is the hard part. But sometimes we get lucky. A really good story, or column, tells itself.”


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Frank DeFilippo, sage observer of Md. politics, dies at age 93