A Commentary on Growth and Politics in Frederick County, Maryland

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Frederick Leader of Distinction

Seventeen years ago, U.S. Senator Charles Mathias was retiring from Congress after eight years in the House of Representatives and eighteen years in the Senate demonstrating courageous personal efforts to further civil rights and begin the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort.

Today, legions of folks in Frederick no longer recognize his name. That is a serious defect of education and a sign of the decay of the community and its governance. We need models of political leaders and the effect of the good and great individual, which we seem to have lost in the loose mantra of 'character counts.'

At eighty-two years of age, his legs are weaker and he suffers some infirmities, but his personal vision is as clear as ever, and don't be surprised if tears seem to well up at the corners of his eyes as he recalls being a child living in the Thurmont area and playing in the streams. It was that love of nature and experience of clean water that led him those many years later to look to do something to help the Bay.

1970 saw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the first Earth Day celebration. The initial Clean Water Act was only a year old. A first-term U.S. senator from Maryland, he was increasingly hearing reports about something amiss in his own backyard. People on and near the Chesapeake had a host of complaints: seafood harvests were down, grass beds were disappearing, raw sewage and industrial wastes were pouring into the water.

“Each problem led to another problem,” Mathias said. “It finally became clear that we needed a comprehensive study of the Bay. Not just one issue at a time, but how the issues related to each other.” It took nearly two years to secure support. With so many federal agencies having a hand in the Bay, it was unclear who should lead the study. Others didn’t see the point. People asked “what could you do with this type of a study? What good is it?” Mathias recalled. “We had to prove that.”

He went to see for himself. He left the Port of Baltimore on a five-day, 450-mile tour of the Chesapeake Bay. Then-EPA Administrator Russell Train was along for part of the trip, as was Interior Secretary Rogers Morton. Mathias talked to more than 150 people, from businessmen to government officials to watermen to farmers to scientists.

The boat trip gave him a sense of the diverse problems facing the Bay, from discharge pipes leading out of cities, to runoff in rural areas, to the loss of grass beds almost everywhere. “By pulling all of these things together, you got a comprehensive picture of what all the problems of the Bay were,” he said. “They were not just one thing.”

Ultimately, the EPA got $25 million for a five-year study. It's final analysis, in 1983, led to the formation of the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program partnership.

Mathias was also a drafter of many key civil rights laws, and proud of his role. "Segregation was not just a legal theory," Mathias said. "It was a fact. Our whole society was organized to enforce segregation. This was a way of life, [but] it's hard to believe it. I can remember education under separate but equal. And I can tell you it was separate, but it wasn't equal."

To know about Charles Mathias is to recognize character as counting for something precious and affirming in society. In an age and place lacking comity and class, it would serve us well to recall a public servant who accomplished changes that led to great public goods. And for us to know that he was from Frederick County, a Republican, an environmentalist, and stood as a liberal within his party, which is rare indeed today.

We can only hope to see his like again.

A Note of Special Thanks to the Bay Journal for the quotations of Mathias from an article, and for being a rare publication that gives its information as free and public material, much in the spirit of the internet and environmental community!