Md. senator was GOP 'maverick'

By Baltimore Sun staff

January 26, 2010

Charles McC. Mathias Jr., Maryland's liberal Republican who served three terms in the U.S. Senate, where he gained enduring bipartisan respect for his conscientious approach to controversial legislation, died Monday from complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 87.

Born in Frederick, Mr. Mathias retired from the Senate in 1986, ending a career on Capitol Hill that began with his election to the House of Representatives in 1960. He was elected to the Senate in 1968.

Called a "maverick" Republican by some, he was a consistent supporter of organized labor, an occasional dove on defense issues and an early advocate of revitalizing the Chesapeake Bay when that was not a significant issue.

"Dad lived what he believed," said Robert Mathias, one of the senator's two sons. "The conversations around the dinner table when we were kids ... were over civil rights, the Vietnam War, issues that were important to him. We were raised in that light."

Mr. Mathias spent the first part of his political career fighting for racial equality, said Charles Mathias, the senator's elder son. One of Mr. Mathias' prized possessions had been a framed photograph showing him shaking hands with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who was in jail in Selma, Ala., at the time.

The picture is signed by King and thanks Mr. Mathias for his help. "The battle is something he believed emphatically in," Charles Mathias said. "It was one of the hallmarks of his career."

The senator's departure from party-line discipline early in his Senate career earned him a place on the Nixon administration's so-called "enemies list," and later cost him the chairmanship of the prestigious Judiciary Committee after the GOP had gained control of the Senate during the Reagan administration.

The Almanac of American Politics, published by the National Journal in Washington, in 1986 called Mr. Mathias "the old-fashioned kind of Republican for whom one of the party's main attractions is its historic record on civil rights; he, also, for a man who is skeptical of government involvement in the free market, comes down a large percentage of the time in favor of economic measures supported by most Democrats and the labor movement."

Reviewing his last year in the Senate, the American Conservative Union gave him a grade of zero, based on his voting record on 20 key issues involving foreign policy, budgetary matters and social legislation.

Mr. Mathias defined his approach to public service in a speech marking Lincoln's birthday in the Maryland House of Delegates many years ago: "I prefer to think it was not his genius but his principles that raised Lincoln so far above his own day and generation. And this may be the lesson of Lincoln - that each of us must live by and for our principles, however they may be shaped by our individual philosophies. Not every one of us can be born a prodigy, but every man and woman in this chamber can live a life true to his or her convictions."

Charles McCurdy Mathias Jr. was born July 24, 1922, one of three children of a Frederick lawyer who was active in the Republican Party. His mother was Theresa McElfresh Trail Mathias, known in her lifetime as a rich source of information about the Frederick area and as a discriminating collector of Maryland furniture.

Robert Mathias said the family has a history of political involvement, stretching to the 19th century, when Mr. Mathias' grandfather was one of the founding members of the state's Republican Party.

The future senator earned a bachelor's degree from Haverford College in 1944, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and received a law degree from the University of Maryland in 1949.

He served as an assistant attorney general of Maryland and as a Frederick city attorney during the 1950s before running successfully for the House of Delegates in Annapolis in 1958. Mr. Mathias was encouraged to run for office, according to son Charles, because "he helped integrate public facilities."

That same year, he married Ann Hickling Bradford, the daughter of Robert Fiske Bradford, who was governor of Massachusetts from 1947 to 1949 and a descendant of the second governor of Plymouth Colony. In addition to his two sons, his wife survives.

Two years later, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Maryland's 6th Congressional District in Western Maryland, defeating Democratic incumbent John R. Foley by a vote of 112,534 to 103,320. He served four two-year terms before his election to the U.S. Senate in 1968.

Mr. Mathias arrived in Washington the same year John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard M. Nixon for the presidency.

"It is not well remembered," wrote New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, "that when President Kennedy failed to submit a promised civil rights bill during his first Congress, three Republicans introduced one before Kennedy sent up what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"The three were John Lindsay of New York, William McCullough of Ohio and Mac Mathias," Mr. Wicker noted.

In 1968, Mr. Mathias challenged another Democratic incumbent, Daniel B. Brewster, this time for a Senate seat. It became a three-way race in which Mr. Mathias won with 48 percent of the vote, compared with 39 percent for Mr. Brewster and 13 percent for George P. Mahoney, who ran as an independent.

Six years later, he sought re-election in a campaign that pitted him against Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski, then a member of the Baltimore City Council. He got 57 percent of the vote to Ms. Mikulski's 43 percent. It was the highest winning percentage any Republican candidate for the Senate received that year.

Ms. Mikulski won the Senate seat after Mr. Mathias decided to step down.

House Democratic Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Mr. Mathias was a man of principle, adding that "his support of protecting the environment and supporting the needs of working people were hallmarks of his career and life."

Gov. Martin O'Malley called Mr. Mathias "one of those unique public officials who was willing to stand up - even against his own political party - for what he thought was right for his constituents and for his state."

Mr. Mathias' retirement at the end of his third six-year term brought an outpouring of affection from his Senate colleagues, as well as civic leaders and longtime friends.

Half of the Senate, the dean of the Washington diplomatic corps and more than 1,000 ordinary citizens gave him a farewell party in 1986 at the Baltimore Convention Center that was rich in tributes from all shades of the political spectrum.

"Senator Mathias has been there when we needed him," said Benjamin L. Hooks, then the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Tonight I say thank God for Mac Mathias."

"He has many friends and admirers, and I'm proud to call him a friend," Sen. Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Republican, said at the time. "His philosophy and mine are not altogether the same. But I admire him as a man."

Charles Mathias said his father remained active after his retirement, living in Chevy Chase with his wife and working to build a diplomacy museum in Washington. "He felt strongly that diplomats have not been recognized for the contributions they've made," said the elder son.

Funeral arrangements have not been finalized. The family said it will hold a public service in Washington.

Baltimore Sun reporter Brent Jones contributed to this article.

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