‘I never felt that what I was doing was to define myself’

Raley’s diligence has helped St. Mary’s prosper

Friday, July 21, 2006

By Jason Babcock

Staff Writer

J. Frank Raley Jr. has had a hand in most of the changes in St. Mary’s County for more than half a century. Much of the county’s current infrastructure and economy stems from the foundation laid by Raley in his work as a delegate, state senator, planning commissioner and as part of other committees and organizations.

Raley, 79, still works as an insurance broker in California, but is also treated as an elder statesman and political sage.

He was instrumental in weaning the St. Mary’s economy off gambling, preserving St. Mary’s City as a historic site and winning a state promise to build a bridge across the Patuxent River to Solomons. He was the first president of the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance, which worked to bring new jobs to Patuxent River Naval Air Station, and to keep Navy operations at St. Inigoes. He also worked to bring St. Mary’s College under the state’s higher education system.

He was also accused of giving the Potomac River away to Virginia, ending the fabled oyster wars.

But Raley said last month that he didn’t begin the journey with a grand vision.

‘‘I never felt that what I was doing was to define myself,” he said. ‘‘I enjoyed working at these kind of things, of putting these together, of coalitions, working with other people.”

He said he wasn’t interested in political return, as evidenced when he threw himself on the sword as a state senator to rid the county of slot machines by 1968.

‘‘I saw an opportunity. I had an understanding of it. I enjoyed the fight; I enjoyed the work,” he said.

But he also cited the work of others, such as John Thomas Parran, a former state senator from Charles County; John Hanson Briscoe, retired circuit court judge and former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates; and County Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D). ‘‘[Del.] John Bohanan is carrying it on. He has a lot of those traits working the issues,” Raley said.

Born on Sept. 13, 1926, in Park Hall, Raley’s father opened a restaurant, bar and cottages in Ridge after Prohibition, where Dew Drop South is currently located.

Raley attended parochial schools in St. Mary’s and graduated from the Charlotte Hall Military Academy, which has been closed since 1976. He voluntarily joined the Army in the fall of 1944 and was called to active duty in February 1945. He was sent to the Pacific theater. But then the war ended.

‘‘The war ended for me on a troop ship heading for Okinawa to invade Japan,” he said. ‘‘That’s as close to war as I got.”

He was 18 at the time. By then, the Japanese were fighting more frantically than ever as American forces drew closer to their homeland, before the sudden surrender when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Asked if he was afraid to fight that kind of force, he said that at that age, ‘‘It seems somehow you’re not afraid of dying. You don’t even think about it.”

After the war ended, Raley attended Georgetown University but didn’t earn a degree. He then came back to St. Mary’s and got into the insurance business.

His father, J. Frank Raley Sr., had been elected as county commissioner in 1946.

At the time, people who lived in St. Mary’s County were not sure if Patuxent River Naval Air Station would remain open, since the war that necessitated it had ended. ‘‘Everybody thought after the war ended they would close it up. It didn’t,” he said.

Then in December 1947, the county commissioners creatively maneuvered to legalize slot machines in St. Mary’s even after Gov. William Preston Lane refused to sign slots into law in Southern Maryland.

Lexington Park grew into an entertainment haven for the base’s sailors, with gambling, women and strong drink.

In 1954, Raley was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates. Politics was always in his family, he said, so it seemed the natural path to follow.

Meanwhile, shots had been fired over the Potomac River since the 1880s in clashes between those oystering from Maryland and Virginia. Maryland had always claimed the river as its own, and called it off limits to Virginia. And by the 1950s, Maryland Tidewater Fisheries Police were frequently shooting at those dredging for oysters illegally.

Approximately 50 men had been killed during the oyster wars.

‘‘The oyster crop hasn’t been worth shooting over” recently, Raley said. ‘‘It was then.”

Raley and Parran of Charles County fought to establish the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, which would share the fisheries of the Potomac between the two states. After much legal wrangling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, President John F. Kennedy signed it into law in October 1962.

‘‘My political opponents ... called it that I had given the river away,” he said. He was beaten in the 1958 primary election.

Raley made the move to the Maryland Senate in 1962’s election. After the election he began to work to abolish slot machines, even though he was neutral on the issue during his campaign.

He said in April 1962 in The Enterprise, ‘‘I am not opposed to slot machines as they were made legal in this county in a referendum of a two-to-one majority and it would not be for me to take upon myself alone that people should not have slot machines.”

So why didn’t he openly oppose slot machines during the campaign? ‘‘I couldn’t have got elected if I had,” he said last month.

In the end, the abolition of slots cost him the office, and Republican Paul Bailey won the next election.

The slot machine lobby was powerful and the division was even within his own family, at least on paper. Raley’s father, who was a county commissioner when slots were approved, had the machines in his business. However, ‘‘he never spoke to me about it when I was involved with it,” he said. Raley doesn’t think his father was angry with him — perhaps he, too, felt it was time for them to go.

Slot machines were everywhere in those days — in gas stations, in pharmacies, bars and grocery stores. ‘‘Slot machines do not mix with a thriving, creative county,” Raley said. ‘‘Slot machines had an excessive amount of political power.”

‘‘They were everywhere except in churches,” Briscoe said this month.

Because of the revenues pulled in from gambling, the county could tout low taxes, but it was ‘‘low taxes and no investment. That’s what I saw,” Raley said. And the Navy had been whispering that it was uncomfortable with gambling’s impact on its personnel.

‘‘Everything else was suffering” because of slot machines, Briscoe said. ‘‘All of the great assets were sitting there stagnating.”

A phase-out of slots in St. Mary’s began in 1965 and they were all gone by 1968.

Other events during Raley’s Senate term included the opening of Point Lookout State Park, a bill calling for a bridge over the Patuxent River in 1966 (though it would not open until December 1977) and a declared war against sea nettles. That last war was lost.

‘‘That got a lot of attention,” Raley said.

After the Maryland Senate, he went on to chair dozens of organizations and committees. He was a member of the board of trustees for St. Mary’s College from 1968 to 1990. He served on the St. Mary’s County Planning Commission from 1969 to 1982, in the days when zoning rules were still new to St. Mary’s. He worked to establish the Air Installation Compatible Use Zone around the Navy base to protect its airspace from crowded residential use below.

As the Pentagon began a series of military base realignments and closures, he became the first president of the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance in 1992 and served for five years. At the time the alliance began, Webster Field in St. Inigoes was being threatened with closure. ‘‘It was being lowered in the grave,” Raley said, but the group swayed political and economic will to keep it in operation.

Then, roughly 5,000 new jobs came to Pax River in the 1990s. Raley chaired a state infrastructure committee to outline the needs in the county for the new population, which totaled around $200 million in roads and school projects, all of which were funded under Gov. Parris N. Glendening, he said.

Looking back at all of the bricks-and-mortar progress in the county, he said he is satisfied with how St. Mary’s has turned out so far. But there is still room for improvement.

‘‘The harshness of some of the development has been a little overwhelming. We could have done better on that,” he said.

Raley is still a mentor for local and state politicians, at least for Democrats.

And Raley is geared up for this year’s election. He said of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). ‘‘He’s certainly no leader. He mucks up everything he gets involved in,” Raley said. ‘‘He’s not attentive — not a lot of attention to policy issues.”

‘‘That’s nothing but pure partisan politics,” said Commission President Thomas F. McKay (R) recently. He said that Ehrlich provided the community development block grant to buy Lexington Manor, got the expansion of Route 235 moving quickly as it was ‘‘languishing,” and has funded schools.

On Ehrlich’s proposal to bring slot machines back to Maryland, Raley said that House Speaker ‘‘Michael Busch took him and just chewed him up,” he said.

He added that if it was put to referendum in the state, that voters would not support bringing slots back.

McKay said that Raley is wrong about that. ‘‘My God, he’s just wrong on that issue. The people of Maryland want slots. Their choice is slots.”

However, McKay said he admires and respects Raley for all of his work. ‘‘I often consider J. Frank Raley’s advice the most valuable advice that I receive,” he said. ‘‘I consider it when making decisions. I think his best work he’s done has been his work when the community addresses the needs of the Navy base.

‘‘He’s certainly one of the elderly statesmen of the county,” McKay said.

Briscoe, 72, said, ‘‘J. Frank Raley was not a good politician — he was a statesman.” In the 1960s, ‘‘He probably brought this county 20 years ahead of its time.”

E-mail Jason Babcock at jbabcock@somdnews.com.