Charles 'Mac' Mathias Jr.: Principled moderate who aided his state and country

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

HE WAS HARDLY a darling of the Grand Old Party to which he belonged and which he nonetheless believed in. Lockstep partisan politics was never the way of Charles McC. Mathias Jr., and his independence cost him key chairmanships during his years as a Republican in the U.S. House and Senate. But "Mac" Mathias, who died Monday at the age of 87, earned the respect of legislative colleagues on both sides of the aisle and the strong support of Marylanders for his thoughtful, close-to-home manner in pressing their concerns.

A descendant of several Maryland legislators, Mr. Mathias entered public service after U.S. Navy duty, serving as assistant attorney general of Maryland and then city attorney of Frederick, his birthplace. There his deep belief in civil rights came to the fore; he played a role in desegregating the local opera house, where African Americans had been restricted to seats in the rear of the theater. As a member of the Maryland House of Delegates from 1959 to 1960, he voted in favor of Maryland ratifying the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution -- nearly a century after it was introduced.

During eight years in the U.S. House, Mr. Mathias established a reputation as a leading figure in the small but effective band of moderate Republicans who worked with Democrats to forge measures ending discrimination in housing, improving welfare, making the C&O Canal into a national park, promoting civil rights and championing home rule and full congressional representation for the District of Columbia. As a senator, Mr. Mathias expanded his list of legislative concerns, pressing for campaign finance controls -- he refused to accept any contribution above $100 -- and pushing for improvements in public education and troop reductions in the Vietnam War.

He also strongly criticized the Republican Party's "Southern strategy" of courting conservative voters and snubbing moderates and liberals. During the 1976 presidential campaign season, he expressed concern that the GOP leadership was placed "in further isolation, in an extreme -- almost fringe -- position." These and other bolts from the party line were not the maneuvers of a maverick showoff; they were, for the senator, matters of conviction. Mr. Mathias said he never entertained any thought of leaving the Republican Party -- only of working to ensure that it lived on as "the party of Lincoln."

As lofty as his pursuits could be, Mr. Mathias was no pious, highbrow lecturer. He was the gregarious, easygoing guy in the rumpled suit who loved a crab feast on his beloved Chesapeake Bay as much as he did the study of American history or his old rattletrap car, affectionately known as the "Blue Bomber." Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who once served as a legislative aide to Mr. Mathias, said that "he will always be a mentor for me and a voice of conscience." To countless others, Mac Mathias was a valued friend and advocate whose pursuit of just causes made the country a better place. His passing reminds us how much poorer Congress has become, with so few principled moderates seeking to legislate for the public good.

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