Hattie Harrison, matriarch of the Maryland House of Delegates, died Jan. 28. She was 84. Known as the “fairy godmother” of the legislative chamber, Harrison will be missed for her diplomacy, mentorship and dedication to service, colleagues said.
"Delegate Harrison was a great influence on everyone she touched," said Speaker Michael E. Busch in a statement. "She took enormous pride in public service and while someone will ultimately take her seat, no one will ever be able to take her place in the House."
As the longest-serving member of the General Assembly, Harrison joined the Legislature in 1973 under less than auspicious circumstances. The well-known civic leader was selected by the Democratic Central Committee after her predecessors died within eight months of each other. Del. Floyd B. Adams died suddenly in November; his successor, insurance broker James A. “Turk” Scott Jr., was gunned down by an unknown assailant the following July.
Despite her career’s ill-fated beginnings, Harrison went on to serve with distinction for the next 40 years, becoming the first African-American woman to chair a major legislative committee, the House of Delegates’s Rules and Executive Nominations Committee.
According to younger lawmakers Harrison was a wonderful mentor, who nurtured their aspirations.
State Sen. Nathaniel McFadden (D-Baltimore), said Harrison showed him the ropes when he first became a teacher at Dunbar High School, where she was also a teacher and PTA president. And, when he turned his eye to politics, she also supported him as a co-founder of the Eastside Democratic Organization.
“In east Baltimore, the father of politics was Clarence DuBurns and the mother was Hattie Harrison,” said McFadden, who was Harrison’s neighbor for 53 years.
“[The Eastside Democratic Organization] made it possible for people like me to not only aspire to politics but to be successful in politics,” he added.
Harrison’s support of young Black politicians reflected her dedication to uplifting her community, a guiding star that informed her own life in politics. In the House, Harrison’s causes were wide-ranging—education, immigration, support for minority banking institutions—but always with an eye to elevating the working class and poor.
“She may have walked with giants and served with giants but she was dedicated to elevating the little people,” said McFadden.
Harrison was part of the committee that effected the rebuilding of Dunbar High School and other development around it including new housing, a health center, community center and more, he added.
“When you see major developments around East Baltimore, the imprint of Hattie Harrison is there.”
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and a former state delegate, said during his 15 years in the state Legislature, he came to know Harrison as one of the state’s “most thoughtful and dedicated legislators.” And it was a dedication that came from her commitment to bringing progress to the people of East Baltimore and the entire city.
"Delegate Harrison was not just a committed lawmaker. She was also a passionate public servant who understood the importance of reaching back to bring others along,” Cummings said in a statement. “That spirit of giving back endeared her to constituents and colleagues alike. She will be sorely missed."
In advancing her legislative agenda, fellow legislators and others say her approach was conciliatory—always willing and uniquely able to forge cooperation—but she was no pushover.
“She was very accommodating, but if you crossed her, you would feel her wrath as well,” McFadden told the AFRO, “She was not anyone to trifle with.”
Added Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, “Her calm but stern demeanor and her matriarchal standing in the community foiled even her most ardent political opponents, who, in the end, came to respect her greatness.
“Baltimore has a lost a good legislator.”