Former Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, a Champion of Honest Government, Dies at 92

by | March 14, 2019 AT 7:20 AM

By Doug Donovan, Michael Dresser, Pamela Wood

Harry Roe Hughes, the 57th governor of Maryland who was a champion of clean government and a clean Chesapeake Bay, died Wednesday after suffering from pneumonia and other ailments, his family said. He was 92.

Mr. Hughes, a reserved Eastern Shore native whose 1978 Democratic primary victory was one of the great upsets in Maryland political history, led an administration that was widely credited with restoring integrity to state government after an era of rampant political corruption. Mr. Hughes served two terms as governor, from 1979 until 1987.

He died at his home in Denton.

Gov. Larry Hogan said he and his wife, Yumi, were "deeply saddened" to learn of Mr. Hughes' death. The governor called him "a longtime friend and Maryland legend whom I deeply admired."

Mr. Hogan ordered Maryland flags to fly at half-staff until sunset on the day of Mr. Hughes' burial. The family said in a statement that funeral arrangements will be announced at a later date.

Mr. Hughes was born Nov. 13, 1926, in Easton to Helen Roe Hughes, a schoolteacher, and Jonathan L. Hughes, an electric cooperative worker and staunch Democrat. He was raised in Denton, graduated from Caroline High School in 1943 and attended Mercersberg Academy in Pennsylvania.

In his autobiography, Mr. Hughes recalled that one of his earliest memories was a 1932 political argument with Harry A. Roe, his maternal grandfather and a Republican. Young Harry, almost 6, backed Franklin Delano Roosevelt, while his grandfather supported Herbert Hoover.

"I have to say: my political views have been fairly consistent ever since," Mr. Hughes wrote.

By age 12, Harry was working at a local soda fountain making 75 cents a night preparing chocolate sundaes and hamburgers. Later, he played trumpet in a local band for $8 a night, and thought himself rich.

He had other jobs at a sawmill and a tomato cannery before he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at 17 during World War II. He was in flight school when the war ended.

It was baseball rather than politics that dominated his early years. A talented pitcher, Mr. Hughes played for the University of Maryland and entertained hopes of a major league career. He played in the minor leagues in the New York Yankees organization but was quickly released.

"I would have loved to have been a major league baseball player," he said in an interview once. He expressed pride, however, in being named to the Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame.

At 24, he turned his attention to the law. In 1949, encouraged by a girlfriend named Patricia Donoho, he entered George Washington Law School, attending classes at night and working for the federal government by day.

In 1951, Mr. Hughes married Donoho -- beginning a personal and political partnership that would endure for 60 years until her death in 2010 after suffering from Parkinson's disease. After graduating from law school in 1952, he returned to Denton to begin practicing in a two-lawyer firm.

As Mr. Hughes noted in his autobiography -- "My Unexpected Journey" -- it was an era when lawyers were prohibited from advertising. So he joined the race for a vacant House of Delegates seat from Caroline County in 1954, in part, to get his name known.

The door-to-door primary campaign that cost him about $156 was aided, he later wrote, by voters who recalled his baseball exploits.

In 1958, he moved to the state Senate, where he served until 1970. He ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 1964.

In 1971, Mr. Hughes became Maryland's first secretary of transportation. He resigned in protest in 1977 after the Maryland Board of Public Works awarded a contract to build Baltimore's subway to a "politically connected company" instead of the winning bidder, according to his family.

His longtime assistant, Verna Harrison, recalled the "vivid memory" she still has about when Mr. Hughes gathered his staff to tell him he was resigning. Given all the political corruption in Maryland at the time, Ms. Harrison said the decision was inspiring.

"He didn't have another job. He didn't have a political base. He just said, 'I am not going to do this,' " she said.

Later that year, he announced his plans to run for governor.

Famously dismissed as "a lost ball in high grass" during his 1978 campaign, Mr. Hughes stormed to victory in a four-way Democratic primary after editorial endorsements in The Sun and The Evening Sun urged voters to look beyond his lagging poll numbers to his record as a legislator and the state's first transportation secretary. He won the general election over Republican J. Glenn Beall by more than 400,000 votes. He won re-election in 1982 by a landslide.

Despite garnering major Democratic endorsements in a 1986 bid for the U.S. Senate, he lost momentum in a crowded primary election that then-Rep. Barbara Mikulski went on to win.

Former Baltimore Sun reporter John W. Frece, who helped Mr. Hughes write his autobiography, said his chances of winning the U.S. Senate race were diminished by a savings and loan crisis in Maryland and across the nation while he was governor.

"He was just such an honest, decent man. He was done a disservice by underlings who should have known but didn't ring the bell about the crisis, and it cost him that Senate race," Mr. Frece said.

Former Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs said Mr. Hughes did not have to engineer a state bailout of the banking customers who lost millions in the crisis since none of the institutions were insured by the government. But he did.

"He saw to it that the state took responsibility for the institutions that failed and to the depositors who lost money," Mr. Sachs said. "It is often said no one lost a dime because Harry and the legislature saw to it that the state stood behind the failed institutions. He went beyond what the law required him to do."

Former Gov. Martin O'Malley, whose father-in-law, J. Joseph Curran, served as Hughes' lieutenant governor, called Hughes a "friend" and a "mentor."

"Harry Hughes was a pillar of integrity in a state too often marred by political corruption. He was one of the finest sons of the Eastern Shore ever produced," said Mr. O'Malley, a two-term Democratic governor. "As a member of the General Assembly, as a cabinet secretary and as governor, Harry Hughes always had the courage to fight for his convictions. He believed the people had a right to clean government. He believed we were all in this together. His legacy will live on for generations in the commitment all of us now share to Save the Bay."

Mr. Hughes' colleagues credit him for launching the program aimed at restoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay. He personally pulled together the governors of Virginia and Pennsylvania with Washington's mayor and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. The meeting eventually led to a summit at George Mason University in December 1983 that created the regional compact that established the bay restoration efforts that continue until today.

Mr. Hughes then proclaimed 1984 "the year of the bay," and proposed an ambitious agenda of pollution controls, including a landmark measure to regulate development on the bay's shoreline and in wetlands. The next year, he supported a highly controversial ban on the use of phosphate-based detergents, a major source of phosphorus pollution in the bay. Despite heavy lobbying from detergent manufacturers and major retailers, the measure passed. Eventually, as with the critical areas law, the other Chesapeake Bay states fell in line.

He also imposed a moratorium on harvesting rockfish in Maryland waters in 1985 and pushed for federal legislation to protect the fish. Under the threat of a possible federal moratorium, other states fell into line to protect the rockfish. Maryland's moratorium would remain in effect until 1990, when scientists found the species had rebounded enough to allow a limited harvest.

After his career in elective politics, Mr. Hughes remained active, especially on environmental issues.

He served as president of the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology, a University of Maryland research facility in Queenstown that was named in his honor in 2006. He was given environmental awards from the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, the Scenic Rivers Land Trust, the Maryland Bar Foundation and 1000 Friends of Maryland.

Mr. Hughes also advocated for government funding for stem-cell research, inspired by his wife's diagnosis of Parkinson's disease.

Susan O'Brien enlisted Mr. Hughes' help when she formed Maryland Families for Stem Cell Research. He helped get a bill passed in 2005 that committed $25 million in the first year for the research.

Ms. O'Brien said Mr. Hughes lent credibility to the fledgling advocacy organization and devoted many hours to speaking before community groups and meeting with lawmakers.

"Without his leadership on public financing for stem-cell research, we would have never invested hundreds of millions of dollars for life-saving research," said Ms. O'Brien, who visited Mr. Hughes last week at his home.

He is survived by daughters Ann Fink and Elizabeth Hughes and a grandson, as well as nieces, nephews and great-grandchildren.

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