John W. Frece, a former UPI and Baltimore Sun reporter, co-wrote Harry Roe Hughes’s 2006 autobiography, “My Unexpected Journey.”
Maybe that is because Hughes never planned to be in politics. Growing up in the sleepy Eastern Shore farming community of Denton, the tall, athletic Hughes wanted to be a professional baseball player. But World War II intervened, and a college coach messed up his pitching mechanics. Instead of pitching for the Yankees, he ended up going to law school, getting married and being elected to the Maryland General Assembly.
Over the next 32 years, he rose from state delegate to state senator, from back bencher to committee chairman to majority floor leader. After serving as a legislator, he became the state’s first transportation secretary and then governor.
As a lawmaker, he was father of Maryland’s modern tax code, making it fairer and more progressive. He was the inspiration behind a landmark change in how Maryland public education is financed, basing it on enrollment not teacher salaries. He consistently supported civil rights and measures aimed at ending racial segregation that were dangerously unpopular in his native Eastern Shore.
As governor, he became known for his steady, bipartisan stewardship of the state’s fiscal affairs during a period of severe budget cuts from Washington, for his principled support of separation of powers and for his early recognition of the evil inherent in racial and religious hate crimes.
Hughes cemented his name in Maryland history as champion of the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland’s environment more broadly. It was he who convened the first regional meeting between Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the District and the federal government to forge a compact to protect the bay — a regional compact that remains the organizing structure for protection efforts to this day. It was his determination to bring farmers and environmentalists together that led to the creation of the Maryland Center for Agro-Ecology, one of his proudest accomplishments. Perhaps most important, these efforts raised the environmental consciousness of those who live in Bay Country by instilling the now-ingrained “Save the Bay” ethic.
These are all worthy achievements, but they miss the central ethos of the man — the personal values that made Hughes stand apart back then and that make him stand apart today more than ever: honesty, integrity, fairness, compassion, humility and restraint.
In a word, civility.
Hughes won the governorship in an upset in 1978. Three weeks before the Democratic primary in September 1978, his campaign hovered at 4 percent of the vote, hopelessly trailing acting governor Blair Lee III’s nearly 40 percent in a four-way race. But thanks in large part to strong endorsements from the Baltimore Sun and the Evening Sun, voters were reassured that it was safe to vote for a man who had the integrity to resign as transportation secretary rather than go along with a subway contract he feared was corrupt. Hughes roared back to win that fabled primary and went on to easily win the November general election and then reelection four years later.
As the Evening Sun told its readers, “A vote for the right man is never wrong.”
In 1982, in his annual state of the state address to the General Assembly, Hughes described his concept of governance:
“We are honest people dealing honestly with the people’s business. . . . It means doing what is right at any personal cost. It means taking personal risk for public good. It means not taking advantage of public fear but taking advantage of every opportunity to put real fears to rest. It means looking not backwards, but ahead. It means not settling for popular remedies, but proper ones. It means displaying courage when it is not absolutely demanded; giving when no giving is asked for; responding when the call to respond is only faintly heard.”
Our country can only hope that someday we have a man or woman in the White House — or as governors of our states — with the civility we were lucky to have in Harry Roe Hughes.