By Len Lazarick
When Del. Hattie Harrison turns 83 today (Friday), the Baltimore Democrat will still be the oldest member of the legislature, still the longest serving member of the House of Delegates, still the first African-American woman to chair a major committee (Rules and Executive Nominations), the committee she has led for 32 years now.
And after 37 years, the South Carolina native is still on the House Economic Matters Committee that she first joined in 1973 after her appointment to a vacant seat in the House of Delegates by Gov. Marvin Mandel. She says Mandel put her on the committee.
That was back in the day when the powerful governor pretty much controlled everything at the State House, even the legislature from which he came. He was speaker of the House when he was elected by the legislature to succeed Spiro Agnew, who became vice president in 1969.
After she was sworn in, Harrison said Mandel, part of a Baltimore political machine, took her out to dinner. Harrison told him she wanted to be on a budget committee. But Mandel had other ideas. Economic Matters is where she went, and that’s where’s she stayed.
Mashed potatoes with a little gravy
As you go through the pages of the Maryland Manual from 1973-74, the pictures of the members of the House of Delegates (and the Senate too) are pretty much a bowl of mashed potatoes with a sprinkling of black pepper – 122 mostly older white guys, with a few youngsters like Ben Cardin, then 31, with a full head of dark hair, and a curly headed Mike Miller, also 31. There were just nine blacks and nine women – three black women in all. Harrison was one of them.
Sometime in the mid-1980s, her birth date disappeared from her short biography in annual Maryland Manual, never to return. And based on the big class photos of the House of Delegates she has in her office, she’s occupied the same seat on the front row of the House floor.
The front row placement has come in handy the last five or six years, as Harrison has maneuvered around the House floor on a motorized mobility scooter. This year, after a stroke right after the September primary sent her to the hospital and a nursing home, she’s upgraded to a Pride Jazzy Select 6 Ultra Power Chair.
Her office in the far-off leadership wing of the Casper Taylor Jr. House Office Building is a good 10-minute trek through the tunnels in the bowels of the State House complex. It involves three elevator rides and a downhill drive through the delegates’ underground parking garage.
Filling a vacancy
Harrison got appointed at a not-so-young 45 to fill the seat of Del. James A. “Turk” Scott, who had been murdered. She was then a permanent substitute teacher at Dunbar High School. “I had no interest in being a legislator,” but she was on the party central committee and politically active with City Councilman Clarence “Du” Burns – later Baltimore’s first black mayor.
“A lot of the teachers wouldn’t take a day off unless they could get me” as a substitute, Harrison said.
“The kids all knew me,” and she knew their parents, and she had no problems with discipline. Among her former students is current Baltimore City Council President Jack Young.
“I’m the Hattie Harrison that got the new Dunbar built,” she says with pride.
After all these years and health issues, why didn’t she retire? “I thought about it, but everybody said ‘Don’t do it. You’re still doing the job.’ ”
As she told MarylandReporter.com back in August, “You can’t throw Momma from the train. Momma’s still got too much to do.”
Even after the stroke, her speech was unaffected and her doctor told her, “Your brain is fine. You can do the work.”
“She’s still the grand dame” of the legislature, said Del. Barbara Robinson, a fellow Baltimore Democrat who’s known her “forever.” Lots of other people know Hattie, too. Robinson was vacationing once in Maui, Hawaii, and ran into a Florida educator who knew her.
Harrison was already on the House Economic Matters Committee for 18 years when Del. Michael Busch, now speaker of the House, was appointed to the panel in 1991. He eventually became its chairman.
“Ever since I got here she has had a key role, not only on the committee, but in the whole House,” Busch said. “She was always referred to as the godmother.”
(A nameplate on her desk refers to her as “Fairy Godmother – Baltimore City Delegation.”)
When things got tense on the committee, Busch recalled, “She would be a settling influence, a calming influence.”
“When Hattie Harrison gets engaged with an issue, people will take it quite seriously,” the speaker said. “She’s universally respected.”
She likes her perch as chair of the Rules Committee, “cause it’s a quiet committee.” It meets infrequently and essentially determines which bills introduced after this week’s filing deadline will get assigned to a standing committee for a hearing.
“We get really important when the deadline for bills passes,” Harrison said.
One of her oldest friends still at the State House is lobbyist Bruce Bereano, whom she met when he worked for then-Senate President Steny Hoyer.
“I knew her when she had blonde hair,” jokes Bereano, referring to a committee photo from the days when Harrison dyed her hair. Bereano, who lives in Annapolis, has worked on her campaigns, even working one of her largest polling places on election day.
“I love her very dearly,” Bereano said.
“Her presence here in Annapolis is an invaluable historical reference for her colleagues,” he said. “She’s one of the pillars of the House of Delegates.”
It’s a very different House than the one Harrison joined, much more diverse, racially and ethnically, but much more partisan as well.
“We used to work together,” Harrison said.