There is, in the story of Harry Hughes' easy sweep to a second term as governor, a lesson about the view from Annapolis -- how legislators and statehouse reporters tend to see Maryland politics and its practitioners with a tunnel vision that frequently differs from the public's perception.
For three years, the word in Annapolis was that Hughes, a laconic Eastern Shoreman, lawyer and one-time ball player who happened into the governor's seat after a fractious race in 1978, had a good chance of being a single-term governor. The word was carried by state legislators, who spoke to political reporters, who, in turn, wrote stories -- although couched in milder terms such as "weak leader" -- that suggested he was a loser.
Hughes, it was said, was too low-key (the nice way of putting it) or "spineless" (the not-so-nice way).
The assessment grew from Hughes' style of governing over Maryland in a manner that self-consciously shunned politics-as-usual: An intensely private and somewhat stiff man, he did not stroke politicians as much as other governors had; he was slow to jump on the burning issues, preferring frustratingly slow analysis; he refused to muscle a legislature that was accustomed to -- although critical of -- gubernatorial orchestration in the past.
While the perception flew about the statehouse like a birdie in an active badminton game, it never seemed to spread past the Annapolis city limits, past Fran O'Brien's or Little Campus and the other watering holes frequented by politicians, lobbyists and reporters.
Polls showed that although many voters in the state appeared not to know that much about Hughes' record or behavior in office, few seemed to object to the low-key style that frustrated many legislators -- and some reporters, who were looking for "good copy."
This was true even after the 1981 General Assembly session, the year that legislators and pundits appraised Hughes' record as a near disaster (his prison policies were under attack in Annapolis and he appeared indecisive in dealing with the state's deteriorating roads). Collectively this group agreed that Hughes was "politically vulnerable" to a re-election challenge from within his Democratic party and in the general election, if he got past the primary.
Several unfortunates took the Annapolis buzz to heart, despite the polls that were available in late 1981. State Sen. Harry J. McGuirk discovered in the Democratic gubernatorial primary this year that statehouse reputations mean little to the electorate. McGuirk, a major power in the legislature, was whomped at the polls by Hughes -- despite his efforts to tar the governor as ineffective and inept in dealing with the legislature.
Republican Robert Pascal, the Anne Arundel County executive whose office is in Annapolis, learned his lesson last week in the general election when Highes breezed past him. Like McGuirk, Pascal heard the word from Annapolis that Hughes lacked leadership ability and tried without success to ride that theme to victory.
Why would two intelligent men not see beyond the statehouse appraisals? Said one Annapolis regular, a legislator: "I don't think Harry Hughes was ever in trouble. But it was fashionable to say he was in trouble because it was in the newspapers. You heard the political insiders and the press make the same complaints, spread the same rumors. Pretty soon everyone began to believe it.
"But the Hughes lesson is that politicians get their news from political reports and the public gets its news on the 6 o'clock news, and the 6 o'clock news did not have much to say about Harry Hughes."
Hughes, for his part, says he always knew that Annapolis reality was not public reality.
"I think the low point, so to speak, was more in the eyes of some politicians and some reporters," Hughes said. "I don't think that the majority of the people believed what they were hearing from some quarters. I think for the most part they were satisified with the state government they got."