There was no place to park, no place to stand and no air to breathe. Martin's West, the scene of innumerable fund-raisers for Maryland politicians, was packed. People were lined up out the door to plunk down $100 each to shake hands with Gov. Harry Hughes.
Once upon a time, even earlier this year, folks weren't all that eager to shake the gubernatorial paw. Many politicians who attended early Hughes fund-raisers hemmed and hawed about supporting him, said nice things publicly and then went off the record to grumble about his aloofness. In June, the last time Hughes had a gathering here, there was a noticeable paucity of big-name Democrats.
This time, they were practically panting to be in his presence, as if the governor were giving off some kind of magic aura. "Everybody loves a winner," cracked one Hughes staffer as the politicians crowded close to Hughes on the podium.
Whatever else the pols say about Harry Hughes, they have to concede now that the man is a winner. In 1978 he defied the odds and beat acting governor Blair Lee III in the Democratic primary. Then he won the general election over Republican J. Glenn Beall Jr. with the largest plurality in the history of the state.
Along comes 1982. State Sen. Harry J. McGuirk, as popular a man as there is in state politics, mounts a primary challenge to Hughes. The result: Hughes gets 66 percent of the vote, McGuirk 22 percent. Still, there is Robert A. Pascal, the prototype Republican candidate, the perfect man to challenge a Democrat. Now, two weeks before the election, the polls say Pascal will be lucky to get 40 percent of the vote and Pascal's staffers already are privately conceding defeat.
So, when Hughes held his final fund-raiser, a lot of politicians were making headlong dives in the direction of the Hughes bandwagon before it pulled out of town.
Most notable was Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Hizzoner has played games with the gubernatorial candidates all year, blatantly ducking Hughes at a couple of Baltimore appearances, just as blatantly showing up at McGuirk and Pascal functions. No, the Mayor always insisted, this wasn't an endorsement. But (choose one) Harry McGuirk/Bob Pascal is a good man and he understands Baltimore.
That's the mayor's catch-phrase: Understands Baltimore. For the last four years Schaefer has insisted that Hughes, whom he reportedly refers to as "that goddamn blue-blood" in private, doesn't understand Baltimore.
But last Wednesday Schaefer was at the fund-raiser. He shook hands with Hughes in the receiving line. He shook hands with him again on the podium. And, when the panting TV cameras came round, Schaefer said that he'd seen a change in Harry Hughes the last couple of months, that Hughes seemed more willing to listen to the troubles of the city.
Schaefer hasn't seen any change in Hughes. But he has seen the polls.
So has everyone else in the state. That's why all the Democrats, including the defeated McGuirk, were lining up to lavish praise on the governor. That's also why Hughes has seemed loose and happy in recent public appearances. He almost appeared to be enjoying himself as he shook hand after hand at the fund-raiser.
"He's really done a terrific job, you have to give him credit," said Speaker of the House Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore). "People like Harry Hughes. Anyone who hasn't figured that out by now isn't very bright."
That people like Hughes galls many of the pols. He doesn't play the game their way, and many secretly hoped that would prove to be his downfall this year. Instead, the reverse has proved true. Hughes has used the trappings of office to political advantage this year as much as any governor, yet the polls say his squeaky-clean image remains intact and has served him well with the electorate.
Now that he seems virtually assured of another overwhelming election, the young Turks of state politics such as Cardin and Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, who are already looking ahead to 1986, have to look there and think about the possibility of Hughes getting in their way.
"He's going to be a two-term governor with two of the biggest pluralities in history," said one Democrat. "People will be used to voting for Harry Hughes. If he runs for the [U.S.] Senate he will be formidable."
That might mean that Sachs or Baltimore County Executive Donald B. Hutchinson might avoid Hughes. That might mean a three- or even four-way scramble for governor. Or, at the very least, a tough Senate fight for whoever takes on Hughes.
That is still a way off, but the politicians are thinking about it even now. Like it or not, they can't just write Hughes off as a fluke anymore. Schaefer's answer to the often-asked "Does your presence here mean you are endorsing the governor?" tells a lot about where Hughes stands now.
"He doesn't need me," Schaefer answers, honestly and ruefully.
Someone told Hughes about that answer and then added that a newspaper headline the next day might accurately read, "Schaefer Concedes."
Harry Hughes laughed heartily at the line. It was the laugh of a winner.