John Coolahan’s political career had a significant impact on the state of Maryland--but he doesn’t want any credit for it. Fiscal conservatism, balanced budgets, accountability and honor are not common virtues among today’s leaders. Sitting across from him at Paul’s Restaurant he looks perplexed.
“Why do you want to talk to me anyway?” He asked. “I did my job. I got paid for it.”
This is the same answer he gives when I ask him why he’ll never be the Grand Marshall of the Arbutus July 4th parade—even though he was the first choice last year.
“He feels like he didn’t do anything special,” said his long-time friend Manny Anello.
Coolahan got his start in politics after going door-to-door for Al Stiles who ran for magistrate and lost in the early sixties. Four years later after a redistricting effort, he ran and was elected to the House of Delegates (1967-70) and to the Maryland Senate for the bulk of the 1970s (1971-78) and the 80s (1983–1989) representing the Arbutus and Halethorpe communities.
Focused on servicing his constituents, Coolahan is most proud of playing a major role in establishing the Maryland State Lottery Commission and in stopping a Mandel bill that would have allowed the state to participate in Bill Veeck’s bid to buy the Orioles in the late seventies.
Veeck was the flamboyant owner of the White Sox and the first to introduce exploding scoreboards and other volatile promotions such as “Disco Demolition” which destroyed the Comiskey Park outfield. His team once wore softball uniforms during a major league season. A resident of St. Michael’s, Veeck had helped orchestrate the St. Louis Browns move to Baltimore to become the Orioles in the early 1950s.
“I believed the government had no business owning a professional sports team,” Coolahan said. “It saved the state a lot of money.”
Having a reputation for the filibuster, he took the floor and started talking, quoting from law books, burning up time.
“That’s all you do is talk, talk, talk—at some point you’ll collapse. I discovered there was more resistance to the bill than I thought,” he said.
Former Sun reporter Robert Timberg dubbed Coolahan the “Lion of Halethorpe” in 1976 after he orchestrated a six-day filibuster to defeat legislation for a subway.
“I referred to Senator Coolahan in the lead as ‘the Lion of Halethorpe and a leader of men,’” said Timberg in an email.
Coolahan was also aggressive in increasing the state’s coffers. He worked for four years to reverse a constitutional prohibition against state lotteries. This led to the creation the Maryland State Lottery Commission. Over the past 35 years, the lottery has generated significant revenues.
“I checked last year. The lottery has netted the state $9 billion dollars. Nobody will remember it was my bill,” he said.
And he’s perfectly fine with that.
Coolahan the Arbutian
John Coolahan was born in 1932 and spent his first few years on 42nd street in the city’s Hampden neighborhood. In 1938, he moved to Leeds Avenue in Arbutus. He attended Ascension Catholic School, Mt. St. Joseph High School, and Western Maryland College.
“I played varsity soccer for St. Joe and football for Arbutus,” he said.
A sergeant in the US Marine Corp, Coolahan fought in Korea and was awarded the Purple Heart.
“Anybody that grew up in Arbutus is willing to fight,” said Tom Malone, whose brother Ned was best friends with Coolahan.
“He and Ned were huge characters,” he said.
In 1968, Coolahan leased an Exxon Station and it was Tom Malone who approved the request for the oil company.
“Our family knew his up and down the line. I knew that he was an ambitious person. I knew that he was an honorable person. To find somebody like that, he was really a find,” said Malone.
The gas station provided Coolahan with the opportunity to attend law school at the University of Baltimore, and he passed the bar in 1972. He practiced law in the evenings when the Senate was in session.
“Ham always aspired to politics and he understood constituent service,” said Malone. “The people of Arbutus are blue collar and a little bit rough but they stick together and everybody knows everybody. If you didn’t perform constituent service, your ass would be out pretty quick.”
He holds court at Paul’s Restaurant with Anello and others on a regular basis telling war stories. Coolahan could also be compared to his possible namesake, Cuchulain (pronounced “COO-HULLEN”), the legendary Irish hero who single-handedly defended his province against invading armies.
As for the recent political scene in the nation’s capitol, Coolahan pulls no punches.
“I’m disgusted with the Congress of the United States,” he said. “Neither side is interested in government. Politics is the art of compromise. Neither side wants to compromise.”
“I can’t even imagine how many zeros are in a trillion,” he says. “Don’t go into politics thinking of it as a career. If it turns into a career, then fine.”
I offer to pay for the Coke. His fierce blue eyes look up at me over his glasses.
“I’ve got this,” he said.