January 12, 2014

Rascovar commentary: Briscoe and Robinson, when duty is an honor

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By Barry Rascovar

For Maryland Reporter.com

John Hanson Briscoe portrait in the House of Delegates chamber.

John Hanson Briscoe portrait in the House of Delegates chamber.

John Hanson Briscoe and Bishop Robinson, who died this past week at ages 79 and 86 respectively, understood the meaning of public service.

They grasped the meaning of acting responsibly and honorably. Their lives remind us what running government is all about.

Briscoe was a calming antidote during the Mandel years in Annapolis. He was the quintessential Southern Marylander, and came by this honestly.

John Hanson was a direct descendant of his namesake, a native of Charles County who was the first to serve a full term as President of the United States in Congress Assembled under the Articles of Confederation (1781-1782).

You can look it up.

Political reformer in the mother county

Briscoe fought the old Dorsey family machine in St. Mary’s County, and won. His polite and gentlemanly demeanor, combined with the patience of Job and a sly, biting humor made him an ideal speaker of the House of Delegates. He proved good at herding political cats.

Briscoe presided with optimism, dignity and grace, his Southern Maryland drawl providing a soothing tonic during heated debates.

Most of us knew him as John or John Hanson, the latter reference proving a competitive irritant to his Senate counterpart, President Steny H. Hoyer, who suddenly started referring to himself as Steny Hamilton Hoyer. Touche!

Statewide outlook

His honesty and integrity came in handy during the shady Mandel years. He wasn’t parochial, either, understanding that in Annapolis you often have to go the extra mile for other parts of the state.

Thus, he alertly steered subway legislation for Baltimore through the House as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He also championed property tax reform, civil rights legislation and environmental protection laws.

He was a persuader and a mediator, but when required Briscoe could be firm and stern as a judge.

So it was no surprise when John Hanson Briscoe proved equally adept and conscientious as a Circuit Court judge in St. Mary’s County for 16 years. He was an exemplar of judicial temperament, fairness and human understanding.

Bishop Robinson when he became police commissioner.

Bishop Robinson when he became police commissioner.

Overcoming segregated times

Briscoe’s service never intersected with that of Bishop Robinson’s, which is a shame. They had much in common. Robinson didn’t claim a genealogical link to the nation’s founders.

Instead, he grew up in segregated Baltimore, graduating from segregated schools, enlisting in the segregated Army and joining a segregated Baltimore parks department and then its police department. But like rich cream, Robinson rose to the top.

He had the smarts to acquire a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in his spare time while taking on just about every important post in the city police agency.

Schaefer’s influence

He caught the eye of William Donald Schaefer, who became a mentor and made him Baltimore’s first African-American police commissioner. When Schaefer left the mayor’s office for Annapolis, he took Robinson with him as corrections secretary.

Later, Gov. Parris Glendening recruited Robinson to run the Department of Juvenile Services.

Robinson proved an able manager who didn’t hesitate to make command decisions but also understood the importance of delegating authority to aides he trusted. No wonder so many people loved working for him.

Robinson’s demeanor demanded respect. Tall, imposing and ramrod straight, he maintained a regal bearing at hearings and executive meetings. When he spoke, people listened.

It was no accident that those who knew him started calling Robinson “the archbishop.”

Contributions to Maryland

Robinson helped expand and modernize the state’s prisons, giving guards better training and seeking ways to cut recidivism. He proved an ideal fit for juvenile offenders in need of  “tough love.”

Both Bishop Robinson and John Hanson Briscoe approached government service as an honor. They dedicated their lives to making Maryland better for its citizens.

For today’s legislators and public officials, there are no better examples of how to do it — if you want to leave a lasting legacy.

Barry Rascovar’s other columns are available at www.politicalmaryland.com. and at marylandreporter.com