Premature Death? Political club’s closing prompts last-ditch revival effort

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 9, 2009

After 55 years of political organizing in Baltimore, the Mount Royal Democratic Club is closing down. “I think we’re getting to the point where we’re tired” in the face of flagging interest, says its president, former state senator Julian Lapides.

But even as invitations went out announcing the club’s last holiday party, scheduled for Dec. 12 at the Maryland Institute College of Art–in the heart of the club’s geographical base in Bolton Hill–its youngest board member, 46-year-old Kim Forsyth, bucked the decision to close as undemocratic, and possibly premature.

“I am simply frustrated that this is a Democratic club and, ironically, it is being terminated by anything but a democratic methodology,” Forsyth writes in a Dec. 4 e-mail to City Paper. “There has been no consultation with members or vote of the membership, and I think the group should continue if there is adequate enthusiasm among its membership.”

She says the matter could be put up for debate and a vote among the members. Forsyth says that Lapides and Mount Royal Democratic Club leaders who are ready to fold the group should “retire, if they choose, gracefully” and allow the club to continue. “There is no reason for [it] to end,” she says.

The decision to close was made, she says, by a few members instead of “a democratic vote”–a process she’d like to see happen, after “providing a venue for the discussion of the club’s future.” She intends to provide that venue, at a meeting to be held on Jan. 31, 2010.

Lapides is encouraged by Forsyth’s enthusiasm. But in a Dec. 4 interview at his Cross Keys law office, he says, “there’s not a tremendous amount of interest in traditional Democratic clubs anymore–for traditional any kind of clubs anymore. I think people are so geared to sitting home on their butts watching TV or doing nothing that it’s hard to get people to meetings anymore.”

Lapides is vague about the current size of the Mount Royal club’s membership. Reached by phone, the club’s founder, retired Baltimore City Circuit Court judge Thomas Ward, says it stands at around 55 to 60 dues-paying members, down from a high of 850 in the late 1960s.

“After 9/11, we lost our regular meeting place,” Lapides says. “We’d been at the officer’s club of the Fifth Regiment Armory for years, when it became a restricted area. So we met at Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill, but there was choir practice [to schedule around], and we were getting very little turnout. Instead of the Mount Royal Democratic Club, it was sort of almost becoming the Mount Royal Social Club. But it was a club with a great tradition.”

Ward recalled that tradition in a recent press release to announce Lapides’ decision to close the club “with honor.” Its 1954 founding, Ward wrote, “challenge[d] an aging political structure married to old ways,” and the club’s members “quickly assembled increasing effectiveness by electing a new wave of elected officials”–including Lapides, who spent three decades in the Maryland General Assembly until 1994; Ward, who was in the Baltimore City Council prior to his election to the Circuit Court in 1982; Walter Orlinsky, who rose up to become City Council president until his political career was destroyed by a 1982 extortion conviction; and several others.

On issues, according to Ward’s write-up, the club–which “was integrated from the beginning, the first to lead the way in a segregated city”–was a leader over the decades on important matters of the day, including promoting historic preservation and expanded options for public transportation, while opposing highways planned for development through historic Baltimore neighborhoods.

The watershed event in the club’s history happened in 1968, when a new organization–the New Democratic Club of the 2nd District, or NDC-2–split from Mount Royal over what Ward now calls “a hidden antagonism.” He says the problem erupted over Ward’s control of the club’s newsletter, but it was really centered on the issues of gun control and the Vietnam War. The new group, Lapides says, was “more liberal” than Mount Royal and more in keeping with Lapides’ own politics, though he stayed on with Ward, helping to guide the club for decades.

When Ward is asked what undermined Mount Royal Democratic Club’s viability, he echoes Lapides’ assessment by bluntly snapping: “Television is what killed the club, the same way television’s destroyed all organizations. I do not have and never have had a TV. People don’t go to meetings anymore, and don’t have clubs–they stay home and watch television.”

Forsyth, though, points out that the club “has not recruited new people for years.” The lack of new blood means that natural attrition will, over time, drain the club of vitality. A good measure of Mount Royal’s wane is the result of a Nexis news search of the club’s name, which yields many more mentions in obituaries than in political coverage.

“It is too important for Baltimore right now to have a political force in place to let this go,” Forsyth says of the decision to pull the plug on the club. “We need to see the kind of enthusiasm the club used to generate recreated.”

According to long-time club member Herb Smith, a professor of political science at McDaniel College, the club’s vitality has been on the decline for some time.

“The long period of Mount Royal Democratic Club activism probably ended about a decade ago,” says Smith. “Urban political clubs have been on the long good-bye for quite awhile.” He says that Lapides “was the last man standing from its heyday in the 1950s to the 1970s. There didn’t seem to be a generational transfer to Gen X or Gen Y as the baby-boomers aged. And internet organizing has really replaced the clubhouse–instead of newsletters, there are blogs.”

Regardless, he says, the closure of the club will be a loss.

“Mount Royal, it was phenomenal in its day,” he says. “The Mount Royal holiday party–there’s the governor on one side, the mayor on the other, a U.S. senator over there. The networking possibilities were amazing. The city will be less for not having the Mount Royal holiday cocktail party anymore.”

Unless the party goes on, should Forsyth be successful in rallying the troops.

“I’m seen as a rebel,” she says, “because I don’t think we should fold the club just because the current leadership is aging and tired. I really do respect them, and I understand, you can’t make enthusiasm happen–it has to be there already.”

In the weeks and months to come, she plans to find out if it is.

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