One of the last vestiges of this state's clubhouse political tradition came under attack in an image-conscious legislature today when the Maryland Senate passed a bill prohibiting the use of "walk around money" -- for decades the life-blood of election day campaigning in the old-line precincts of Baltimore.
The bill, approved by an overwhelming 37-8 vote, would make it illegal for candidates and organizations to dole out cash to hired-hands who for one day -- election day -- work the street corners and polling places rounding up votes for their political sponsors. The measure now goes to the house for consideration.
This practice has become a political way of life in some wards of Baltimore, where local political leaders line up "walk around" armies and then ask candidates who are looking for a strong vote in those areas to supply the money to pay for them. In last year's Democratic gubernatorial primary, Blair Lee II handed out $90,000 in "walk around money."
Lee lived to regret it -- losing both the money and the election to Harry Roe Hughes, who carried most of the old-line wards without paying for election day works. "That was a lesson I learned the hard way," Lee said later. "All that money wasted, right down the drain."
The sponsors of this year's bill said they were not concerned with the effectiveness of "walk around money" but with the image it conveys. "I consider it an insult and very offensive to the Democratic process," said Sen. John J. Garrity, a Democrat from Prince George's County, where the practice has never taken root. "It borders on the buying of an election, the buying votes."
Another Prince George's senator, Thomas V. (Mike) Miller, recalled how he ventured up to Baltimore last year looking for support for former Sen. Steny H. Hoyer, then a candidate for governor. "I was embarrassed by what I saw," said Miller. "Those folks wanted to trade support for money."
The upholders of the "walk around" tradition argued that those who wanted to end it were hypocrites. "What you're saying is that if I hire a public relations consultant for $5,000, that's fine, but if I hire a young boy or poor mother at $15 a day to pass out literature, that's wrong," said Robert Douglass, a senator from Baltimore's east side. "If someone's getting $15 for day's work, the're not being paid, they're volunteers."
Many of Douglass' Baltimore comrades, however, decided that the bill would not bring an end to their way of doing business. Noting that the bill allowed candidates to pay workers for meals, transportation and supplies on election day. Sen. Harry J. McGirk the silver-haired chieftan of south Baltimore, boasted that "this bill has so many loopholes you could drive a Mack truck through it." McGuirk was so convinced of that that he eventually voted for the bill.
Sen. Joseph S. Bonvegna, whose east Baltimore district regularly employs the largest "walk around" army in the state, pointed out one of the loopholes during an exchange with Garrity on the Senate floor.
"Are you saying to me that if I give someone $25 for meals I'm violating the law?" asked Bonvegna, his enormous face glowing with street wisdom.
"No sir," responded an earnest Garrity."If you can justify that the meal cost that much it's permitted."
"I'm sure it does," said Bonvegna.