Nicknamed the “Lion of Halethorpe” for his exploits on the Maryland political stage and “Ham” Coolahan by his boyhood friends, John Carroll Coolahan served his country, his state and his constituents with distinction and fire.
His legacy of fiscal conservatism and integrity stands in stark contrast to the present-day political debacle in Washington and is one that all politicians, aspiring or existing, should consider emulating. He didn’t waver on the issues or pander to special interests, and he didn’t cut any corners as a senator, a delegate or a judge.
“He’s a straight shooter and very stubborn as a politician—a rare breed. You always knew where you stood,” said Arbutus attorney Manny Anello. “He didn’t go along to get along, and he wasn’t in the room when the deals were being cut.”
Anello first met Coolahan when the Maryland State Senator stopped into Anello’s law office once a day to make copies in the early '70s. Also an attorney, Coolahan would use the copiers in the office next door to his and leave $.25 with the secretary.
“That’s his integrity,” said Anello. “He would not charge the state of Maryland three cents for the copies. I was stunned by that—political corruption was rampant at the time.”
Coolahan’s reputation as a fiscal conservative and a Democrat who bucked party trends impressed Anello, as did his skills for filibustering on critical issues.
“He was a Reagan Democrat before the term was invented,” said Anello. “He came out of the conservative tradition that began in the '60s and '70s like Scoop Jackson. He was very stubborn as a politician. He was also a parliamentary genius who could tie a bill up.”
As state senator, Coolahan pushed for the death penalty, helped establish the Maryland Lottery Commission, and left a legacy of integrity, according to Anello. When summoned to testify before a grand jury against former Governor Marvin Mandel, Coolahan didn’t use the opportunity to take any cheap shots against his opponent.
“I heard allegations, but I didn’t know anything other than hearsay,” said Coolahan. “Governors are supposed to push legislation—that’s politics.”
His confrontations with Mayor William Donald Schaefer, whom he called “Willie Don the Con,” were legendary.
The 11-Armed Octopus
“I took some cracks at Mayor Schaeffer,” said Coolahan recently over a Coca-Cola at Paul’s Restaurant in Arbutus. He wore a white Notre Dame T-shirt featuring the fighting Irish mascot with his dukes up.
“He never let that go. We said some nasty things. I supported him for governor,” he said.
The mayor would come to Arbutus asking for money for special projects like the zoo, and after a heated exchange with Coolahan, would turn his back on him at the council meetings.
“John would say something like, ‘Why are you always crying poor mouth?’” said Anello.
Once elected governor, Schaefer set up a meeting with Coolahan though a mutual contact. Shaeffer got up from behind his desk and sat down next to him.
“I asked him why he was always grabbing money like an 11-armed octopus,” said Coolahan. “He responded, ‘You better be an 11-armed octopus as the mayor of Baltimore.’”
Coolahan told Schaeffer to give him a “heads up” if there was legislation coming that would require the senator to, as he put it, “hold his nose."
“Have somebody contact me before I shoot my mouth off,” he told the mayor.
When Coolahan wanted to become a judge in the Baltimore County district court, he went back to see the governor about his candidacy.
Schaefer told him, “If you want to go on the district bench, I’ll give you honest consideration like everybody else.”
The Sun reported that Schaefer “approved Coolahan to get rid of him.”
He served in the district court of Baltimore County for five years.
“He thought I could do the job,” said Coolahan, referring to Schaeffer.
At age 78, Judge Coolahan continues to hear cases around the state in retirement—Upper Marlboro, Easton, Towson and Carroll County, and sometimes he runs into his old friend Manny Anello.
“He asked me for leniency because the defendant’s grandfather had coached soccer at Mt. St. Joe where I went to school. I told [Anello], ‘One more word and I’ll have you arrested.’”
Tomorrow -- Part II: The Politician and the Arbutian