The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Harry Hughes, Maryland governor and low-key steward over two terms, dies at 92

Former Gov. Harry Hughes stands on the banks of his property on the Choptank River near Denton, Md.
Former Gov. Harry Hughes stands on the banks of his property on the Choptank River near Denton, Md. (Nanine Hartzenbusch/AP)

Harry R. Hughes, who as Maryland governor brought a tone and perception of order and propriety to the state government after the scandal-ridden administrations of Spiro T. Agnew and Marvin Mandel, died March 13 at his home in Denton, Md. He was 92.

A daughter, Elizabeth Hughes, confirmed the death but did not provide a specific cause.

Mr. Hughes, a Democrat, was Maryland’s chief executive from 1979 to 1987. Unlike two of his predecessors, he served the two full terms to which he was elected.

Agnew, a Republican, resigned as governor in 1969 to become President Richard M. Nixon’s vice president. He later quit that office after charges that he had accepted bribes while governor of Maryland. Mandel, a Democrat, stepped aside as governor in 1977 after charges that linked him with mail fraud and racketeering; his conviction was overturned on appeal.

Marvin Mandel dies; ex-Md. governor’s scandals overshadowed state’s progress

Elected on a pledge to restore integrity and pride to the state’s reputation, which had been badly tarnished by shenanigans in the Agnew-Mandel era, Mr. Hughes was seen in the popular eye as the quintessential straight arrow. Neither flashy nor flamboyant, he maintained a low profile that reflected responsibility and diligence. Taking office, he promised “a very quiet administration.”

A 1986 Washington Post summation of his administration said Mr. Hughes “set modest goals without apology” and created an image that never went beyond that of an “honest and amiable caretaker.”

An Eastern Shore native, he was a staunch advocate for the Chesapeake Bay. His gubernatorial stewardship included signing into law the Chesapeake Bay Agreement, which contained measures to protect the Bay from pollution and excessive exploitation of its crab, fish and oyster supply.

He began trade relations with China, presided over a doubling of the state budget to more than $8 billion and initiated programs to improve the state’s support of education. He raised payments in the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program and backed reform of a pension plan for state employees. He appointed a record number of women and minorities to cabinet posts and judgeships, as well as state boards and commissions.

In the Hughes administration, Maryland began an aggressive program to crack down on drunk drivers, and the state raised gasoline taxes to pay for critically needed road and bridge repairs.

But the governor was often at odds with the 188-member Maryland General Assembly, whose leaders groused that the governor’s dislike of backroom wheeling and dealing made it difficult to get things done. Some lawmakers said he was often slow on the draw.

“He doesn’t really pick priorities. They just sort of come up. . . . He waits for the prison guard to be stabbed, for the Bay to decline and the S&L to be robbed before he acts,” Del. Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George’s) told The Post in 1986.

Stephen H. Sachs — who was elected Maryland’s attorney general in 1978, the year Mr. Hughes was elected governor — was kinder. “I think his greatest legacy will be that he restored the state to political sanity, not just by being honest, which was not a bad place to start, but with appointments, the openness, the candor,” Sachs said in 1986. “People now take these things for granted, but eight years ago you couldn’t.”

The low point of the Hughes governorship, of his entire political career, came during his final years in office. A crisis in the savings and loan industry deprived thousands of Marylanders of their money for several months and seriously eroded the governor’s popularity. That crisis involved S&L failures across the country, and Maryland was especially hard hit by a loss of investor confidence.

Among the measures ordered by the governor to avert a panic were limits of $1,000 a month on S&L withdrawals from 102 chartered by the state and a 20-day ban on withdrawals from Community Savings & Loan of Bethesda, where a two-day run had raised the specter of insolvency. Using emergency powers granted him in a special session of the General Assembly, Mr. Hughes signed an executive order tightening state S&L regulations and closing loopholes that had allowed certain unsafe practices.

Nevertheless, critics said that the governor had been too slow in his handling of the crisis, and the plunge in his popularity is widely believed to have contributed to his defeat in his last run for public office. In 1986, he finished third in a three-way Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat. That primary was won by then-Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski, who captured the seat in the general election.

Harry Roe Hughes was born in Easton, Md., on Nov. 13, 1926. He grew up in Denton, attended Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania and served in the Navy Air Corps during World War II.

He graduated from the University of Maryland in 1949 and from George Washington University Law School in 1952. As a young man, he played professional baseball for a year in the Eastern Shore Baseball League as a pitcher in the New York Yankees’ farm system.

In 1951, he married Patricia Donoho; she died in 2010. In addition to his daughter, of Amelia Island, Fla., survivors include another daughter, Ann Fink of Federalsburg, Md.; a grandson; and three great-grandchildren.

Mr. Hughes practiced law in Denton before representing Caroline County in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1955 to 1959. He then served 12 years in the Maryland Senate. He did not seek reelection in 1970. In Annapolis, he made a reputation as a conscientious and savvy legislator who understood the finer points of budgets and tax matters.

He voted in favor of bills opening up public accommodations to African Americans — one of two legislators to do so from the Eastern Shore, a region with a long history of racial segregation.

On the eve of the 1971 session of the Maryland legislature, Mandel named Mr. Hughes the state’s first secretary of transportation, a job that entailed managing such previously independent and often-at-odds agencies as the State Roads Commission, the Maryland Port Authority, the Baltimore Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Aviation Commission.

He served until 1977, when he resigned “as a matter of principle,” believing that a politically influential campaign contributor was being given undue consideration in the awarding of a Baltimore subway contract. Within weeks, he was preparing to run for governor.

In the Democratic gubernatorial primary, political pundits and media savants gave Mr. Hughes no chance of winning. One called him a “lost ball in high grass.”

But in late August, the tide turned in his favor. The Baltimore Sun broke precedent and endorsed him four days in succession, once publishing their choice on the front page. He defied custom and convention by winning without big money, heavy advertising or a large volunteer organization.

In the 1978 general election, Mr. Hughes he was chosen as Maryland’s 57th governor, easily defeating Republican J. Glenn Beall Jr.

At his first inauguration, in January 1979, Mr. Hughes pronounced the day a “celebration of real change.” This would include small but symbolic details.

No longer was there a governor’s lobbyist on the floor of the legislature handing out racetrack passes in exchange for a few votes. State limousines were abandoned, and the governor’s mansion would henceforth be called by its official name, Government House. Its new inhabitants thought this sounded less ostentatious.

There would be changes in style. A few weeks after taking office, Mr. Hughes scheduled a Saturday morning meeting with two of Maryland’s top budget officials. They showed up in blue jeans and work shirts. The governor wore a coat and tie. At a second meeting the next Saturday, the budget officers wore coats and ties; Mr. Hughes wore slacks and a work shirt. When the state’s chief executive asked what was appropriate, he had to be told that the dress code was his call: “Harry, you’re the governor,” the budget officer said.

After leaving office, Mr. Hughes served on various statewide commissions and boards. Asked once to evaluate his performance as governor, he said, “My mother was a schoolteacher, and she never let her students grade their own papers.”

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