Former US Sen. Charles Mathias of Maryland dies
Published: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 12:47 a.m.
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Former U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, a liberal Republican from Maryland who championed civil rights and protection of the Chesapeake Bay during his 26 years in Washington, has died. He was 87.
Mathias died Monday at his home in Chevy Chase from complications of Parkinson's disease, said his sons Charles and Robert.
Mathias' career spanned the turbulent years of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, and he often found himself at odds with his party on those and other issues.
In retirement, Mathias broke with his party again in 2008 when he endorsed Sen. Barack Obama a week before the presidential election. He said Obama was "better suited to recharge America's economic health, restore its prestige abroad and inspire anew all people who cherish freedom and equality."
Leaders from both the state's Democrat and Republican parties described him as an influence on their careers. Former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich said he keeps a photo of Mathias on his office wall.
"He was a pioneer, a gentlemen, and a fierce advocate for the citizens of Maryland during his time in public life," said Ehrlich, who was elected Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation in 2002.
Mathias was elected to the House of Representatives in 1960 from a western Maryland district and quickly gained a reputation for bucking the Republican Party. Election to the Senate followed eight years later. He was a strong supporter of civil rights legislation, favored allowing the District of Columbia to govern itself and supported a federal ban on inexpensive handguns known as Saturday Night Specials.
When conservative Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater won the GOP presidential nomination in 1964, Mathias would not endorse him by name, saying only that he supported all Republican candidates.
Mathias generally supported President Richard Nixon on economic issues, but opposed two of the president's conservative Supreme Court nominees and voted against the administration's attempts to weaken the 1965 voting rights acts.
In his home state, Mathias was considered to be the father of the massive state and federal program to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
On June 22, 1973, he began a five-day, 450-mile tour of Maryland's portion of the bay, meeting with more than 150 scientists, business leaders, conservationists, farmers and watermen. That tour laid the groundwork for the eventual partnership among Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, the federal government and the District of Columbia to preserve the bay.
Mathias served three terms in the Senate before deciding not to seek re-election in 1986.
"The season has arrived to shift to a new field of activity," he said in 1985 in announcing his decision. While Mathias was often at odds with the Republican right, he said "that was not significant" in the decision and that conservative colleagues were "extremely open and supportive during the time I had this under consideration."
He also predicted "the tide will come in again" for Republican moderates and liberals.
In March 2005, when Mathias received an award from the Maryland Senate, state archivist Edward Papenfuse told the Senate that as a Republican in a Democratic state, "Sen. Mathias wore the label moderate Republican with pride and to great effect."
"His record on civil rights, fair housing and protecting the environment is universally recognized and acclaimed," Papenfuse said.
In a 1993 interview with The St. Petersburg Times, Mathias said that "participating in the civil rights movement was the major thing."
"When I went to Congress, this was a segregated country. Now there is, at least, in law, no racial barriers," he said.
On Monday, Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch described Mathias as an influential lawmaker who "cast a giant shadow across the state of Maryland."
"He stood for all that was good about public office, all that was good about consensus building," Busch, a Democrat, said.
Busch said there was no greater advocate for the Chesapeake Bay than Mathias.
Audrey Scott, chairwoman of the Maryland Republican Party, recalled working on his campaigns and considered him an inspiration.
"He is one of my idols," Scott said. "He was so genuine, so honest. He was a true public servant. He never had a personal agenda. It was only what was best for the people."
Mathias was born in 1922 in Frederick, Md. In his 2008 essay endorsing Obama, he wrote that in 1860, "my great-grandfather ran for the Maryland Senate from Frederick on the anti-slavery Republican ticket. At the top of that ticket was Abraham Lincoln."
Mathias got a bachelor's degree from Haverford College and received a law degree from the University of Maryland in 1949.
He served in World War II, enlisting as an apprentice seaman in 1942 and earning a commission as an ensign. He rose to the rank of captain in the Naval Reserve.
After serving as an assistant state attorney general and city attorney for Frederick, Mathias was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1958. Just two years later, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the first of four terms.
Besides his sons, Mathias is survived by his wife, Ann Bradford Mathias and two grandchildren, Clare and Catherine.