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The Tentacle


May 23, 2006

Bare Bones Politics

Roy Meachum

Let me confess: All I really know about politics I learned right here, in Frederick. Sad to confess but I had been in the hurly-burly of partisanship more in Italy in the time I was working in Rome.

Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy had a bigger impact on me, professionally and personally, during all those Washington years, than all the action around Capitol Hill and whoever moved in and out of the White House; I'm not really counting Lyndon B. Johnson, of course.

Readers have acquired from my columns my special relationship with the Texans that moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue after Jack Kennedy's assassination. I loved Lady Bird; never got to know him. But my comings-and-goings were in the East Wing, where I served as an advisor on the performing arts.

Riding on the fear of the Soviet Union, Senator McCarthy increased the national paranoia with wild allegations, false charges and pure mud thrown on the weak and anybody who dared to question.

What came to be called McCarthyism blossomed in the first winter I lived in Georgetown while attending the college. By the time the man died, seven years later, working on The Washington Post, I received the assignment of covering his last day in town. He was buried in Appleton, Wisconsin, his hometown.

Except for those instances, as a reporter, politics were really out of my bailiwick. I took the clippings, press releases and notes handed over by an assignment editor, one day at a time. That may have been the happiest chapter of my career.

Republicans or Democrats, socialists or neo-Fascists, they came and went. The rules of the game demanded straight-ahead reporting; no turns, either to the right or to the left.

In the Hill sex scandals, which came as the nation began to shoot off candles for the bicentennial; all the elected participants were Democrats. During the Eisenhower administration, I had dealt with Sherman Adams before a vicuna coat took him down and damaged the GOP.

Herb Alston was my cameraman the morning we called on an encampment of neo-Nazis in Arlington. Herb was African American and ready to unload on the racist gang when we got him out of there. Socialists appeared, maybe not by battalion but in some numbers during the anti-Vietnam war protests.

Few of the stories were entirely without some emotion but nothing prepared me for the intense passion that accompanied politics in these parts.

What brings the thought to mind is the furor whipped up in less than six months by Frederick's new mayor. Jeff Holtzinger is such an unlikely human being to be on the hot spot. Not inarticulate, but hesitant to speak before thinking, the one-time city engineer, with a law degree in his pocket, is altogether an unlikely politician, especially around here.

The movers and shakers when I came up the pike were a veterinarian, a former teacher and a used-to-be school administrator: Jim McClellan, Ron Young and Galen Clagett. The official posts they held: chairman of the legislative delegation, Frederick's multi-term mayor and commissioners' president.

Out in the wings, but never out of sight, on his farm close to New Windsor, Sen. Charlie Smelser was the county's "man" in Annapolis. Sen. Jack Derr was known far and wide as the county's token Republican. Democrats controlled almost everything else. Boy, have times changed!

"Doc" McClellan zealously guarded his role as the county's "political boss." No easy task. He had help from Sheriff Bob Snyder. They still enjoy each other's company, making up the majority of the county liquor board.

Most of the time, the virtually retired veterinarian "operated" out of public sight; he came close to tipping his hand when Mr. Clagett decided to run for the House of Delegates.

In tribute to the commissioner's president's political prowess, Mr. McClellan set about blocking Mr. Clagett's bid, and succeeded! And they were both Democrats, it should be added.

Mr. Clagett and Mr. Young had plunged into politics not jointly but very near; they looked for all the world like real comers, destined for higher office. Beyond the delegate seat he failed to grab, the former commissioners' president saw the U.S. House of Representatives. That dream Mr. McClellan snatched away.

Mr. Young had hopes for Annapolis; he even ran for lieutenant governor with a Baltimore pol who once ran a saloon. In the event, the four-term mayor threw away City Hall in a fit of boredom; whatever it was, he had already done it. And the true visionary could not bring his new dreams into play. His defeat, in 1989, was not pretty.

When I first moved to Frederick, these three were the sum of the political game. The provided an eyeball-popping introduction to politics. Mr. McClellan's decision to decline another race, in 1994, removed the last of Frederick's political "bosses." Senator Smelser bowed out the same year.

Commissioners' President Anita Stup can claim credit for breaking the county away from the Good Ol' Boys when she went on to win a House chair. The most popular politician of her day was not a Democrat; she joined Frederick's hitherto all-male delegation over Mr. McClellan's flurry of moves to keep her out. She also let in a slew of her fellow Republicans, in the city as well as the county. But no surprise.

Voter registrations have over the last 20 years balanced out, with independents holding the means to push elections toward either major party. We live now in a time when a candidate's affiliation is virtually meaningless. That's for Frederick City races.

Look at today's City Hall, reversing the former administration when the Democratic mayor contended with a board of aldermen that consisted of a Republican majority. New GOP Mayor Jeff Holtzinger faces a board on which his party stalwarts need Democrat support, at least one vote, to pass anything.

In the county, the GOP holds the edge because of recent arrivals. Nobody has surveyed new residents on how many once were Democrats because it is a meaningless question. On today's legislative delegation, all are Republicans except for Galen Clagett, the target of state GOP cannonade to take him out.

As briefly as possible and as objectively as I can, these are the bare bones of Frederick's political reality. I can't still understand why people and fellow journalists are so eager to jump on Jeff Holtzinger, for Pete's sake.

The mayor has just juggled, with the Board of Aldermen, major surgery on the bureaucrats that have run Frederick. So much second-guessing and gross interference strike me as totally unwarranted.

Give the guy a break! He's what the voters wanted, after all.



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