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C. Fraser Smith: Right time, right place for Lee

About 100 years ago, this proud democracy decided it was time to let the voters vote for U.S. senators — before insiders tailored the field to their specifications.

Until 1913, U.S. senators were chosen by state legislators, bosses and maybe even those very good government-minded corporations.

Reformers convinced a majority of the states that putting senatorial elections in the hands of the people might curb the corrosive, undemocratic power of money in state capitols where, shockingly, it was feared legislators could be bought.

By the end of 1913, the 17th Amendment had been passed by a sufficient number of states. Maryland’s assembly was not one of these, having been out of session at the appointed time.

In one of those fortuitous consequences of human endeavor, the voters of this state chose state Sen. Francis Preston Blair Lee of Montgomery County. The Democrat had been a champion of open primaries in Maryland. And now he would be the first U.S. senator from any state to send one of its own to Washington under the democratizing amendment.

An earned distinction

Lee had earned the distinction. In a state dominated by political bosses, he had served with progressive zeal, championing a number of new laws designed to protect the people from the self-serving. His efforts, even before the 17th Amendment, shifted some of the power to the voting booths.

Virtue, we know, is often its own reward. In this case, the virtuous Lee benefited handsomely. His ultimate good fortune was, not surprisingly, a matter of pure politics as well as pure circumstance.

Lee was the great-grandson of Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The Marylander had given the entrenched political powers a fright in 1911 when he fell just short of winning the governorship. He looked fully capable of finishing the job four years hence.

Then life intruded with the death of U.S. Sen. Isidor Rayner, who was just beginning his second term in Washington.

Republican Gov. Phillips Lee Goldsborough appointed a temporary replacement. Rayner had been elected by the legislature in accordance with the law then. Now, though, a special election would be needed. The people would choose.

Democratic leaders quickly anointed Lee, in part to put him on a different career path — away from the governor’s office, which they wished to keep in their own hands. It was not the first time a politician moved up — and out of the way — at the same time.

Lee had gone to Princeton University, returning to the family’s famous home in Silver Spring. He finished law school, opened a practice and married.

After the very untimely death of his wife, he turned to the practice of politics — as many in his family had since the dawn of the Republic.

A Progressive devotee

Lee became a devotee of the Progressive movement and of William Jennings Bryan, making a seconding speech for Bryan when he was nominated for president at the Democratic National Convention in 1896. Bryan became one of many national luminaries who repaired to the Lee family retreat to recuperate from the demands of Washington.

Bryan would get a bit of exercise chopping wood and then have dinner on the Lees’ front porch. He was made secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson, but would not remain in office when he realized Wilson would take the country into war. The Lees believe he wrote his resignation letter at Silver Spring.

Lee ran successfully for the Maryland Senate in 1905, racking up many legislative wins: bills establishing the Public Service Commission; protecting child labor; instituting more transparent and orderly bill drafting rules (throttling inside dealing) and the direct primary voting system.

He was also the author of something later called the unit rule — a second tier of ballots akin to the Electoral College of today. It was Lee’s effort to balance the formidable voting power of Baltimore.

In 1911, he ran for governor against Arthur Pue Gorman Jr., losing the popular vote by a big margin, but almost winning on the county or unit vote. It was close enough to scare the bosses.

He seemed like a threat to the entrenched powers — who cannily backed him for Raynor’s vacant U.S. Senate seat. The Democratic leaders essentially cleared the field and he won easily.

Sometimes coming close matters in politics as well as horseshoes.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org. He is completing a book on the Lees of Maryland.

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