Historic Tidbit: California Republican Congressman Ron Packard told the story of a random man who asked him for a picture. He obliged to which a fellow Maryland Republican colleague, Marjorie Holt, asked him why he was taking a photo with her opponent. Packard naturally said he didn’t know who the person was. The tidbit is that two years later, the man, Howard Greenebaum, moved to California and challenged him. He fared even worse.
It’s not often one hears the term “beautiful bureaucrat,” especially from a member of Congress. But Gladys Spellman was no ordinary member of Congress. In fact, the Maryland Democrat may be best known for being unable to complete her term due to a heart attack that had left her comatose. But Spellman was an extraordinarily respected member of Congress whose legacy should be defined by what she was able to accomplish in just three full terms representing Prince Georges County, Maryland. An ability to bring disparate groups together, and to get big things done for an ever-growing region.
In a Congressional class that had many rookies, Spellman was anything but. She had been involved with county government for many years before her election to Congress. A generation before Patty Murray was confronted with the “you’re just a mom in tennis shoes,” from a legislator, Spellman got something similar — from one of her colleagues no less.
Spellman had won a seat on the Prince Georges County Board of Commissioners. Couple with the fact that reform elements were not yet in control was the novelty of having a woman on the board — for Spellman was the first. And was told she “thinks like a man.” She replied, “well, I guess today was an off day for me. Tomorrow, I’ll be myself and do better.” But Spellman’s abilities were unmatched, and one person who knew her said she ranked as “very close to near perfection with which she credits herself.”
Spellman was born in New York City but had moved to Prince Georges during high school in the mid 1930′s, a time when county government was run by a select few. That changed only with the rapid growth, which in the 1960′s alone was 70% in the county.
Having taught elementary school and served as President of the PTA, Spellman “saw how the system worked in Annapolis” and decided to try to make it work. In 1962, she ran as a reform candidate for a seat on the Board of Commissioners and won.
Congressman Carlton R. Sickles said Spellman “recognized that the system wasn’t responding to the people, and she wanted to change that. She was the one who always brought people together.” Another confidante said Spellman had an “almost magical ability to float into a crowded room bubbling with happiness and cheer.” And that would send her national profile soaring.
President Johnson appointed her to the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations and in 1972, she became president of the National Association of Counties. And then, it was on to Congress.
Spellman captured the Democratic nomination for the seat of Republican Larry Hogan easily. This was 1974, the Watergate year and Spellman’s Republican opponent, John Burcham Jr, had helped himself little by proclaiming himself “the Christian candidate.” Spellman won with 53% and as the Democratic nature of the seat would increase, so would Spellman’s electoral security.
In a class of 75, Spellman’s colleagues immediately recognizing her leadership abilities, and, after initially nominating her caucus secretary, instead rectified that mistake by making her caucus vice-chair.
Spellman was assigned to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, where she could hold leaders feet to the fire as to implementing the reforms. And when they balked, she took notice. “We may be new kids on the block,” she’d say, “but we’re not stupid.”
Yet when her turn came to head the freshman caucus, she declined, saying,”you don’t always want to stay in kindergarten.We’ve accomplished a great deal and now we’ve become part of the establishment.” Thirty years before Nancy Pelosi could say we’ve “broken the marble ceiling,” Spellman could say the class “opened the doors wide and pumped fresh air back into the smoke filled rooms.”
And then came what she had in mind for the district.
The Almanac of American Politics said Spellman proved adept at working with idealistic liberals and more practical minded politicians who did want to do away utterly with the patronage that is as much a part of Maryland politics.”
Her “Beautiful Bureaucrat” award was a monthly recognition in her newsletter whom she felt deserved special merit. “Far from slowing down the wheels of government,” she said, “they are really the people that keep them churning.” But in a district that contained more than 40 percent of federal workers, it was also smart politics. With a seat on the all-important Post Office and Civil Service Committee, Spellman would eventually chair the Subcommittee on Compensation and Employee Benefits.
Spellman would also prove a different kind of representative, answering constituent letters herself and issuing “listening post reports” that listed her home phone number. But her most lasting impact may have been the pavement of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, which as Senator Barbara Mikulski said, was “no easy task.”
At home, Spellman’s percentages rose so that, by 1978, she faced just token opposition. Things had been progressing the same as she sought her 4th term in 1980. But at a Laurel, Maryland mall three days before the election, Spellman was to Judge a Halloween contest. But she collapsed at the scene. Her heart had temporarily stopped and it was later determined that she was in a coma.
Voters re-elected her with 80%. As time went on, it became clear that she would not recover (though her personal physicians were said to have hoped for improvement), and the House physician advised members that “there is no likelihood that she will be able to serve out her term of office.” At that point, they declared her seat vacant. That was the first and only time members would take such action.
Steny Hoyer would win a May 1981 election to replace her (a post he still holds) defeating, among others, Spellman’s husband. Spellman would never regain consciousness, but would be able to breathe on her own, before ceasing to do so in 1988 at 70.
Mikulski, who came to the House two years after Spellman, called her “probably one of the best Maryland public servants in terms of constituent services, from fixing potholes to the great coup of getting the federal government to pay” for the pavement, “which was no easy task,” That highway, along with the elementary school from where she taught were renamed in her honor.