Former Maryland Gov. Harry R. Hughes, who prided himself on restoring public faith in the political process, died Wednesday. He was 92.
His daughter, Elizabeth Hughes, said Hughes had been in hospice.
“I was holding his hand,” she said. ‘He was a wonderful dad. He was a kind generous man, and he had a great sense of humor.’
In a statement on Hughes’ passing, Gov. Larry Hogan said flags will be flown at half-staff until sunset of the day of interment. Hogan described Hughes as “a longtime friend and Maryland legend whom I deeply admired.”
The two-term Democratic governor, who served from 1979 to 1987, also spent 16 years in the General Assembly and seven as Maryland’s first transportation secretary.
Hughes came to the governor’s mansion at a time when Maryland had become a national symbol for corruption. Gov. Marvin Mandel had been sentenced to jail on political corruption charges and former Gov. Spiro T. Agnew, who left office to become vice president under President Richard Nixon, had pleaded no contest to income tax evasion. Mandel’s conviction was later overturned on appeal.
Hughes said in a January 1987 interview with The Associated Press that he was most proud of restoring integrity to state government.
“It’s an intangible, but very important,” Hughes said at the time.
He left political life after a failed bid for the U.S. Senate, saddled by the public with much of the blame for the 1985 savings and loan debacle.
“Looking back, I wouldn’t have done anything differently,” he said of the one blot on his record. “I think we handled it well.”
Hughes and the legislature moved quickly to create a state agency that took over from the private agency that insured the thrifts. Most depositors got all their money back.
Born in Easton on Nov. 13, 1926, Hughes enlisted in the Navy at age 17 and served a year and a half with the Navy Air Corps in World War II. He graduated in 1949 from the University of Maryland and flirted with a baseball career, spending a summer with the New York Yankees’ Class D farm team in Easton, before going on to George Washington University School of Law.
He opened a law practice in his hometown of Denton in 1952.
In 1954, he was elected to represent Caroline County in the House of Delegates and in 1958 was elected to the state Senate, where he served until 1970.
He was appointed to head the newly created state Department of Transportation in 1971, but resigned in May 1977 to protest the award of a large construction management contract.
Hughes’ campaign for his party’s nomination for governor was beset by financial problems and he was dismissed by political observers early on as “a lost ball in high grass.”
His friends often lamented Hughes was too shy to promote himself, too restrained to ask for campaign contributions.
But he shocked the pundits with a Democratic primary upset of Acting Gov. Blair Lee, who moved up from lieutenant governor when Mandel went to prison.
Hughes was elected Maryland’s 57th governor in 1978 by a landslide, 71 percent of the vote, the largest margin of victory for a Maryland governor at that time. He was re-elected in 1982 with 62 percent.
During his two terms, he launched an aggressive economic development program, a large tax relief program, an overhaul of the corrections system and the biggest prison construction program in state history.
In 1983, he signed an agreement with the governors of Virginia and Pennsylvania and the mayor of the District of Columbia to work to restore the polluted Chesapeake Bay.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who has been a state legislator since 1972, said Hughes was an environmental leader who was an early supporter of protecting the bay and the environment.
“He was ahead of his time,” Miller said. “He moved the state forward.”
Hughes also cited his programs dealing with child and spousal abuse, drunken driving, increases in school aid and transportation projects that included an interstate from Baltimore to Annapolis.
After eight years as governor, he launched a bid for U.S. Senate, but was dogged on every step by depositors angered by the savings and loan crisis and he lost the primary.
Hughes left government to become a partner in the Baltimore office of the Washington law firm of Patton, Boggs and Blow, which represents mostly corporate clients before government agencies.