Folks entering the front door of the Hampden Republican Club are not greeted by political functionaries. There’s no phone bank getting out the vote for the upcoming election, no signs promoting GOP Congressman Andy Harris or presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Not even an animatronic Ronald Reagan statue emitting storied sound bites like, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
In reality, penetrate the bare, green-faced building on Chestnut Avenue just below The Avenue, and you enter a dim 6,000 square-foot space that is decidedly apolitical, more a giant pool hall than a conservative redoubt in a city where donkeys outgun elephants nine-to-one.
Round banquet tables dot the confines, and there’s a Formica-topped bar in a semi-walled-off area in the back, beneath a big-screen TV. The walls are lined with billiard trophies and hung with an impressive collection of tapestries depicting dogs playing poker. But while there’s not much to look at between the nicotine-stained tin ceiling and the green and white tile floor, there’s a lot to ruminate on.
“Wow, walking in here brings back some memories,” says James Campbell, a former six-term Democratic member of the Maryland House of Delegates accompanying a reporter on a recent tour of the club. “It feels like stepping back into the old days. There’s a lot of history in these walls.”
If you’re wondering why an erstwhile Democratic legislator would wax nostalgic about a Republican club, you should be aware of the building’s bipolar political existence. While it’s been a GOP club since right-leaning local David Morgan bought the place in 1995, for 20 years before that it was a Democratic club—a lynchpin in a smoky, beery, old-school approach to electoral politics that, for better or worse, has gone the way of those clunky, lever-operated voting booths.
And yet, this unassuming structure still has connections to the corridors of power, past and present, on both sides of the aisle.
“I’ve probably been to the club four or five times and talked to some good groups there,” says former Republican governor and congressman Robert Ehrlich. “The place just reeks of history.”
Democratic Senator Ben Cardin recalls the address from his days in the state legislature, when his district included Hampden.
“Hampden was—still is—a unique and close-knit community,” the senator says. “When I first started to represent it, the only way to really get into the community was through the Hampden Democratic Club. It was the neighborhood’s political antenna to the outside world.”
And these days? Well, let’s just say the pool trophies and dog tapestries are no strangers to darkness. Given the city’s stark political tilt, it never achieved the hubbub as a Republican hangout as it did with the Democrats. Elephants do collect here on occasion. On Super Tuesday in March, some 80 GOPers were on hand to watch the primary results come in and hold their own presidential straw poll. (Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum tied.)
The city’s Republican Central Committee, however, holds its monthly meetings at a public library. On most nights, the facility functions simply as a semi-private social club, where locals bring their own beer and hang out. It is also an unlicensed one, and liquor-board raids over the years have left the place on life-support. Once home to 27 pool leagues, the club currently hosts two. Want to see a lively crowd? Your best bet would be the once-a-week bingo sessions a group of local seniors holds within.
“I’m 71 years old, and I just can’t keep on doing this,” says club owner David Morgan, who is also adjusting to life as a recent widower. “I’m slowing down. My two children want no part of it, and so, chances are, this probably is going to be sold in the very near future. There’s just nothing here anymore.”
Neighborhood political clubs, Democratic ones at least, were a fixture in Baltimore for most of the 20th century. At their best, they were the political hubs where folks learned about issues, met candidates, listened to speeches, and socialized with ideologically kindred spirits. More nefariously, they were cogs in a machine-style system of politics where ward bosses traded pools of votes for an influence pipeline to City Hall, patronage jobs, and other bits of mutual back-scratching.
“I cut my teeth at the Hampden Democratic Club,” says city Councilwoman (and past council president) Mary Pat Clarke. “I went to their monthly meetings, endorsement parties, fundraisers—we all did.”
She recalls when the club met in a small row-house bar across the street. It was in 1975 when Hampden Democratic heavyweight, the late Bob Burns, leased the former Acme/Shop Rite grocery store and kicked the club up a notch. “Then, they had plenty of room and had all kinds of dances and parties,” Clarke says. “It was just a fun place.”
Amid the pleasure, some bruising politicking took place. Just ask Campbell. Despite being a local boy, Campbell didn’t receive the Hampden Democratic Club’s endorsement when he first ran in 1978. There was a fair amount of endorsement horse trading done among the city’s Democratic clubs, and it seems Burns had aligned his club’s candidate card that year with another group’s. Campbell won anyway, but it made for some tense times.
“This is where I learned politics—fighting with Bob Burns,” Campbell says with a chuckle. “He often strong-armed the club, but looking back on it all, it was fun. People don’t seem as involved with political issues at the local level today. There was a certain passion then, while now it’s all TV ads and social media.”
All that “passion” sometimes led to run-ins with the authorities, such as in 1975 when then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer’s administration ran afoul of the U.S Department of Labor for running a federal summer jobs program out of the Hampden Democratic Club. Such a partisan arrangement, The Sun reported at the time, was “open to abuse and favoritism.”
In 1977, Hampden was one of six Democratic clubs sued by the Federal Election Commission for engaging in that dog-eared political gambit, doling out “walk-around money” on Election Day. And two years later, the club was raided for running an illegal numbers operation.
The news stories didn’t help the club’s image, but its influence was fading by then anyway.
“I don’t know if there are any Democratic clubs or any political clubs left in the city—they’re certainly diminished in number and influence,” says Julian Lapides, a Bolton Hill Democrat who spent more than three decades in the Maryland General Assembly. While no stranger to the Hampden club, Lapides was most involved with his local Mt. Royal Democratic Club, which met for many years at the Fifth Regiment Armory, among other places, until folding three years ago.
“It’s kind of a shame, and much of it is due to the various neighborhood organizations which, I believe, have really taken the place of the Democratic clubs,” Lapides says. “Community associations have sort of taken on the role of being watchdogs of things affecting their particular areas.”
By 1995, with the club’s political role waning and Burns getting on in years, the grocery chain put the building up for auction. Morgan was able to snatch it up, initially hoping to house his printing business there. But when zoning issues persisted, he maintained it as a political club and gave it a rightward turn. He knew a Republican club would be a tough sell in a town that hadn’t seen a GOP City Council member since FDR was in the White House. It was almost akin to opening a Steelers bar. But then he’s no stranger to being a political black sheep.
“I have seven brothers and seven sisters, and I’m the only Republican,” Morgan says. “A lot of people were upset when I hung up my sign.”
In truth, donkey was swapped out for elephant with little fanfare, as the looming hall carried on with its largely social functions, including its incarnation as a burgeoning billiard parlor. That is until one of the people seemingly “upset” with the Chestnut Avenue goings-on was then-Comptroller Schaefer. In 2000 and again in 2002, agents from his office raided the club for selling alcohol without a liquor license.
Was this all some form of political payback? Looking back now, Morgan is on the fence. On the one hand, he is confident his operation would have been treated differently had it fêted Democrats. He says unlicensed beer flowed freely there for decades when donkeys ruled the roost. But he can also see how his de facto nightclub was causing problems in the neighborhood, if for no other reason than it took all the parking.
“I was harassed until they got me where they wanted, which was to have nobody coming in here,” says Morgan. “My pool leagues left. A handful of regulars are all I get now. So I’m going to have to let it go. Age has caught up with me.”
Apparently, there is nothing like the threat that police could come barging in the door with batons and bullhorns to send serious pool shooters seeking greener felt elsewhere. Through the years, Morgan has been presented with various business propositions for the building, everything from a dry cleaners to a brick-oven pizzeria. Most recently, an upscale grocery has been proposed for the space, which could give it a 360-degree return to its roots.
“[The Hampden Club] is really a throwback to when political clubs ran everything, an era we will probably never see again,” says Ehrlich. “Now it’s about how many ‘likes’ you get on Facebook, but back then, politics were as human as you could get.”