I Believe in Science - Political Science
Updated: Jan 31
Senator Charles (Mac) Mathias (R-MD) Governor Theodore R. McKeldin (R-MD)
Ok folks, the topics today are political patronage and special interests. These both might be on the final exam, so please stay awake and look like you are taking notes. I will try to be as entertaining as possible.
Webster tells us that political patronage is the appointment or hiring of a person to a government post based on partisan loyalty.
Those who oppose it feel that it is synonymous with malfeasance and incompetence. That is the “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” school of thought and, as you’d have to admit, it is not limited to the political world.
Those who favor patronage argue that it is the way mayors, governors, and president’s “take hold” of government and ensure loyalty and a united direction. If you ran on a platform of A, B, and C, you want a team who believes in A, B, and C.
Also, what you know and who you know are not mutually exclusive. You can assemble a team that is both capable and loyal. You will be judged on both scales during your tenure, and if you are a loyal nincompoop, you will eventually be put back on the sidewalk.
Granted, there are degrees of who you know…up to and including with whom you share DNA. If you are the mayor’s daughter, your competence will not determine your longevity in the job. However, in my opinion, that is purely nepotism and has nothing to do with politics or patronage.
Some people who favor political patronage like it because they were direct beneficiaries of the practice. That would be me.
It is the fall of 1970, and I am already thinking about where I want to be employed next summer. I am entering my junior year at the College of William and Mary and am there on the strength of National Defense Loans that my parents have used to fund my education. If I wanted to be in a fraternity, put gas in my car, eat an occasional deli sandwich, or pay for a movie, that was on me, and so summer employment was not optional. I had produced “Triptiks” for AAA, done manual labor for an engineering/surveying company, installed telephones for Ma Bell, and removed disconnected phones from the “projects” in the toughest neighborhoods of Baltimore City. I was ready for something with a desk and a trajectory that looked “careerward”.
Our across-the-street neighbor in Catonsville was Doug Brown, Dartmouth grad and young sportswriter with the Baltimore Evening Sun. When he and his wife Marion moved in as a newlywed couple, my parents adopted them and assisted them in their new homeowner and novice cook transition.
They loved my folks and Doug showed his gratitude each year with an amazing gesture. He covered the Baltimore Orioles baseball team for the Sun and received two season tickets each year as a perk for his family. Marion hated baseball, they had no children, and so, each year, Doug would walk across Thackery Avenue and hand my dad a pack of two lower reserve seats, Section 49 behind home plate, for every home game at Memorial Stadium. Those seats were where I spent many hours of quality time with my dad, and became a lifelong and long-suffering Orioles fan.
When Doug and Marion had children, including a surprise set of twins, Doug’s constant travel during baseball season became an issue and he transitioned from the best job in the world to, well, let’s just say not the best. He became a public affairs officer with the General Services Administration (GSA) in Washington DC. GSA ran the Public Buildings Service, the Federal Supply Service and other “housekeeping” duties of the federal government. Sadly, the Hoover Commission in 1949 thought that the National Archives fit that category (boo, hiss) and stuck the agency in GSA.
So in 1970 Doug made another fateful stroll across Thackery Avenue to tell my dad that GSA had a summer intern program and that I might be interested. Dad called me at college, and it sounded like a swell idea. I could apply and then do face-to-face interviews at Christmas break. I did so, made the round of interviews, and not surprisingly found the National Archives the most attractive option. I also found that the atmosphere of all the “services” other than the Archives dripped with political overtones. GSA had a reach to every congressional district in the country and had perfected the art of ingratiating themselves to every single congressman and senator. I also learned that most of my fellow intern candidates were a year older than me and GSA was hoping to permanently hire them at the end of their internship.
On a bright, early spring day in Williamsburg, VA, a fraternity brother shouted up the stairs of the frat house, “Constance, there’s a call for you”. I ran down the steps and jumped inside the communal phone booth on the first floor. The phone was in the familiar off the hook and swinging in midair position. I answered and the voice on the other end was sorry to inform me that I had not been chosen for the GSA internship and hoped that I would try again after my senior year. I thanked the voice, hung up, and said…well never mind what I said, but I was disappointed. I shared my disappointment with Hayden and my roommate John Metzger that day and called my folks that night. They expressed their sympathy and we talked about some other summer options. We said goodnight and I went to bed a discouraged soul.
One week later, the pattern repeats. Shout up the stairs, I run down and answer the swinging receiver. But this time the voice introduces itself as Ted Trimmer, Associate Administrator of GSA. He apologized and said there had been a mix-up with applications and that I was being offered an internship with the National Archives beginning in June. He hoped that I had not made other arrangements and could accept their offer. I said yes on the spot, and he said that he truly looked forward to meeting me.
Wow. I called Mom immediately and she was quite pleased with the news. Dad called that night with his congratulations. “Mr. Constance goes to Washington” he said as we got off the phone.
I don’t remember how long afterwards I learned the back story of my hiring. It was some years later. Probably one night when I was “teaching” my father something about the evils of political patronage.
He sat back, smiled, and asked whether I was enjoying my career at the National Archives. I said yes, of course and he said, well let me tell you a little story.
“After we got off the phone in the spring of 1971, I had a sleepless night and decided that some help was in order. The next morning, I called Mrs. Momberger, Governor McKeldin’s secretary (Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin was former Mayor of Baltimore and former Governor of Maryland, and a major force in the moderate wing of the Republican Party). The Governor called me back that afternoon and I told him of your fate in the internship and wondered whether there was anything he could do to help. He readily agreed and apparently immediately picked up the phone and called Mac Mathias (Senator Charles Mac Mathias, Republican US Senator from Maryland). He told Mac how disappointed he was that a fine candidate like John Constance had been turned down by GSA for this position. An honors student (poetic license here) at William and Mary, he would be perfect for a slot at the National Archives. After an interval of a few days, Mac had his Chief of Staff call Ted Trimmer of GSA. Apparently, Trimmer was the guy handling the political liaison duties for the Agency. The call apparently went as planned, Trimmer personally called you up and your work has made everyone in that call chain proud. I immediately followed up by phone and in writing to everyone who assisted. Any questions?”
There are a couple of underlying lessons here that were not lost on me and that helped me in my Washington career.
My dad and all his family members were dyed-in-the wool Democrats, pro-union, blue collar, Roosevelt voters and proud of it. As a young man Dad worked for Democratic Senator Millard Tydings both in Maryland and in Washington. My mom’s family were Republicans, white collar, and connected to the top of the power chain. My mom’s father John Loeber was a law partner with Harry Nice (great political name) who had been the Republican Governor of Maryland during the Great Depression.
While a reliable Democratic vote when temperance wasn’t an issue, my father’s father Reverend Bert Constance was the crossover leader in the family. A well-known preacher from pulpits throughout the state, Bert, while a registered Democrat, was respected by leaders in both parties.
It was his connection to Mayor and Governor Theodore McKeldin that gave my Democrat dad the opportunity to tap the Republican power structure and get his son a Washington job during the Nixon administration. You see, Ted Trimmer was as Republican as my dad was Democrat but access to both sides of the aisle started my career.
In congressional affairs I never forgot that lesson. The folks in the minority party are not committee chairs and have time on their hands. They were the ones most available to tour the National Archives with constituents and family. They were the ones whose time allowed my drop in visits, and they would be reliable “yes RSVP’s” for evening events. And inevitably, they would be in the majority one day with the power to fund preservation, repairs to Presidential libraries, and major increases in appropriations to start the Electronic Records Archives. It was not my job to critique their politics. It was my job to teach them how the records of our national life needed to be preserved on their watch.
I am a strong proponent of political patronage. Any questions?
What’s So Special About Special Interests?
OK, part 2 of today’s lecture…use the bathroom if you need to, but at least stand up and stretch. We will begin again in 15 minutes.
There are some oft-repeated sentences that drive me up a wall. But as a political science major with 40 years of Washington DC experience, this sentence is at the top of the list:
“Special interests have taken over our politics and are the cause of much of the trouble in Washington today.”
Those illusive, mysterious special interest groups, represented by handsome men with $1,000 suits and Italian-made tassel loafers and increasingly by attractive women decked out in Chanel. Simply horrid. Hide your children because these ghouls are on the prowl.
But wait. As an example, for all you special interest opponents, let me examine John Constance. I am a North Carolinian, an Episcopalian, a retiree, a fly-fishing enthusiast, a beach property owner, and someone who enjoys an occasional malted beverage or glass of spirits. I have developed a habit of breathing the air, drinking the water, and driving the highways of the United States, and airplane travel has been a reliably safe way to see the world and visit my family in Wales and Scotland.
Those playing the at-home version of our little game have already guessed that each one of these eleven characteristics have given me a lifetime membership in eleven different special interest groups. There are many more that I could add, and I am sure that you each have overlapping or distinct groups in whose virtual fraternity or sorority you are a dues-paying member.
And please also note that many of the groups of which I am a part have competing and sometimes conflicting interests. Highway and air travel pollute the environment and therefore impact air and water quality which in turn have a trickledown (yuk, yuk) effect on trout streams. Retirees use resources that they paid for years ago and are now consumers and not providers. That requires tax dollars that could otherwise be used for all my other interests. If Social Security worked as designed, that would be another story, but that is a book and not a blog, so let’s move on.
Is beach development compatible with environmental issues? When I’m sitting in my deck chair, watching the tide come in and consuming a North Carolina-brewed craft beer, do I care? I should, but hey, no one’s perfect
In summary, we are all part of multiple interest groups, all of which are represented in Washington DC by lobbyists. Yes, even the Episcopal Church has a Washington Office, staffed by people who represent a faith-based position on many national issues.
More special interest groups are a good thing, not a bad thing.
Our system works through a concept called “pluralism”. Multiple interests collide in major cities, state capitals, and Washington DC to make their cases, provide supporting information (aka facts), and appear face-to-face and in council or committee hearings to advocate for their group. While Congress does have institutions like the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress to provide objective information on a variety of issues, billions of dollars of research-supported information is provided to Congress free of charge every year. Well, not entirely free of charge. When you buy a product, visit an historic site, pay for a fishing license, buy a plane ticket, or even drop a dollar in the collection plate on Sunday, some of that money finds its way to Washington to represent your interests.
Is there too much money in politics? Yes. Do some special interests have more resources than others? Yes. Does that unfairly skew their access? Yes. But instead of whining about it, analyze your own special interest groups and see if they need a little bit more of your money to function. Have you renewed that membership in Trout Unlimited? Have you thought about gifting a membership in the Sierra Club to someone on their birthday? How much money did you send to the Legal Services Corporation last year? Are you pledging enough to your church each year? Did you know there is an airline passenger's association? They have a website. You can’t do it all, so decide what you are going to do and follow through.
You are a part of numerous special interests. Own it. Fund it. And please don’t use that “special interests…are the problem” sentence in the New Year.
A Retired Career Lobbyist*
*While legend connects this word to the lobby of the Willard Hotel in Washington DC, where the power brokers tracked down President Ulysses S. Grant for “suggestions” over brandy and cigars, the word actually dates to 1640 and was in regular usage associated with the House of Commons in the late 18th century. At its root it refers to spaces adjacent to royal or legislative chambers where subjects/citizens can meet with the Crown or legislators to provide input to the governing process.
We lobbyists have been around for centuries and will probably join the common roach as the last species standing. (Or crawling.)