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Friday, May 30, 2008

Jim Griffin: one promise he couldn't keep

By Dick Hirsch

I will always remember my first personal conversation with Jimmy Griffin. He was the councilman representing the Ellicott District and I was the new reporter on the City Hall beat, a boy competing against men with years of experience. I was able to develop what every reporter cherishes: a reliable source. Some reliable sources are more reliable than others, but this one had a superior track record.

Griffin was serving his first term on the Common Council, elected as a Democrat, but he quickly began showing indications of independence, voting the way he wanted to vote, rather than the way the Democratic Party chairman, Peter J. Crotty “suggested.” The Democrats caucused each Monday afternoon before the Tuesday meeting. Even then, three of the favorite adjectives used to describe Griffin’s temperament were irascible, independent and pugnacious.

I was working for the morning paper, so I always lingered late, attempting to discover what major issues were decided at the caucus. Usually, I learned nothing. But that Monday I discovered from my reliable source that Jimmy Griffin announced he would no longer vote with the Democrats, that he was tired of taking orders from Democratic headquarters, and that although he was still a Democrat, he henceforth planned on voting independently. I wrote the story disclosing that decision and it was on page one the next morning.

Soon after I arrived at City Hall that day, he suddenly stalked into the Press Room on the second floor. I was the only one there at the time. He was beyond agitated. He seemed just short of a rage.

“You wrote that story about me?” he said. There was a question mark at the end of the sentence, but it clearly was no question; it was a declaration. “You never talked to me.”

“Yes,” I said, all at once remembering the legends of Griffin, the ex-paratrooper, throwing an occasional punch for emphasis when he became irritated. My knees must have been wobbling.

“Why did you do that?”

By now we were standing toe to toe and I had to think of an an answer.

“That’s my job,” I said. “That’s what I do for a living. You were probably going to announce it today and the other paper would have published the story first. My job is to get the stories first.”

That explanation must have appealed to him. He was a person who understood the challenges faced by the working man, even when that man happened to be a reporter. He paused, smiled, and clapped me on the back.

“OK,” he said, “only next time ask me. I promise I’ll always tell you the truth.”

When he died Sunday, (May 25) I thought of that first meeting and the bond it established. He was nearly 79, but with that twinkle in his eyes and the spring in his step, he seemed much younger.

Over the years he remembered the meeting as well as I did. We became friends. He moved on from the Common Council to the State Senate, where he became known as the Democrat who often voted conservative. He later became mayor and served a record 16 years. I was gone from the newspaper reporting business by that time, but, among other things, I conducted a live weekly program on Channel 17. I interviewed him many times, and he was always as advertised: earnest, feisty and and outspoken. Once, during a blizzard, the others who were supposed to join in a panel discussion canceled. Station personnel hurriedly made plans to air a substitute program. I reassured them. As promised, Griffin arrived on time and we did the interview.

During all those 16 years, I devoted a portion of my time to defending Jimmy Griffin from the criticisms of many of my friends, relatives and colleagues. They assessed him based on his style and decided he was narrow minded and belligerent, a true redneck. We had differences, especially regarding his overheated anti-abortion rights rhetoric, but I urged people to look beyond style to accomplishments, to the job he was doing as mayor; the condos on the waterfront, the ballpark, the new homes, the hotels, the theater district, the promises made and kept.

Just as I remember our first conversation, I’ll remember our last. He wasn’t feeling well. “I’ll be fine in a few days,” he said. “I promise I’ll call you.” That was one promise he couldn’t keep.



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