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Marjorie Sewell Holt

Mar 07, 2011 03:00AM ● By Anonymous

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She owes her congressional aspirations to a civics teacher who encouraged her interest in government and advised her to study law as a first step. Her father also had a lot to do with setting her on her chosen course.

“I didn’t have a brother,” she says, “and I’ve always felt my father raised me as he would a son. He taught me to drive early and took me hunting with him, things like that. So, I started out thinking I was as good as anybody else, and I’ve always felt that way.”

But it wasn’t easy. She had to develop a steely resolve to get past the obstacles strewn in her path, starting with her entrance to law school at the University of Florida just when thousands of GIs, returning from World War II, were entering college. Only five women were in that year’s class of 500, and she was one of the three who graduated, despite discouragement and outright harassment by some of their professors.

One completely disconcerted her by ignoring the import of a presentation she was about to make and introducing her as “that rare combination of sex and brains.”
“I fell apart,” she remembers. Another professor had her recite the lurid details of the most obscene cases. But she got through the rough patches. “Every time I felt like they were harassing me,” she says, “I could look around and see they were doing it to young men, too.” Whatever the harassment’s intent, it
didn’t keep her from graduating in the top 2 percent of her class.

After her marriage to Duncan Holt, she devoted herself to raising their three children. When they moved to Maryland, however, she was ready to concentrate on her law career and the goal she’d set for herself years before. In 1962, she began practicing law in Anne Arundel County and “played around in politics.” But the Republican Party’s men didn’t encourage her.

“Every time I’d try to run for a legislative job, they’d put some roadblock in my way,” she says. But there was one job they hadn’t anticipated anyone’s running for, and that was clerk of the Circuit Court. “That office was the best place to build a political base. You don’t have to make a lot of tough decisions, and you can really help people.”

The office of clerk of court was held by Senator Louis Phipps, an old-style Democrat and longtime party leader, who’d served as alderman, mayor of Annapolis, and state senator. He was up for reelection in 1966.

“He wasn’t a lawyer, but it was traditional to park older statesmen of the Democrat Party in the courthouse to honor them, and that’s what they’d done. Nobody else would dare run against him, but I’d practiced law and knew what needed to be done in the courthouse. I’d show ’em.”

And she did. In November 1966, Senator Phipps and the party leadership weren’t worried about the “pretty 45-year-old lawyer,” as the Evening Capital described her, when she challenged Phipps on his questionable “record-keeping.” A woman? A Republican woman? Not in Democrat-controlled Anne Arundel County. In a surprise upset, Marjorie Holt won handily by nearly 2500 votes. It was “one of the biggest upsets in county politics,” the Capital reported. She served until 1972, when the opportunity arose to run for congress to fill an opening in Anne Arundel County’s newly created Fourth District. Once more, the party leaders discouraged her. Or tried.

“I started in September the year before, rounding up the women’s vote. I went to lots of Democrat bull roasts. Got thrown out of some of them, too. I think the fact that I started early scared everybody off. They knew they couldn’t beat me in the primary with the women supporting me like they were. That’s what I tell women now. You’ve got to realize how valuable your support is. That support got me a position that was unbeatable in the primary.” She bested Democrat Werner Fornos in that race and, again, when he tried a second time. She had little or no opposition from then on.

During her time in Congress, Marjorie Holt was drawn toward economic matters. Her work on the budget committee was where she proved what one determined person can do.

One of the things she’s most proud of was a budget amendment that she offered without cosponsors, to reduce the rate of spending. She was just as amazed as everyone else when, “lo and behold, the darn thing passed. Tip O’Neill went out of his mind. He came down on the floor and twisted arms until they changed two votes and turned it around. But it made them scared of me from then on. President Carter, everybody, watched everything I did.” So did the media. The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine speculated about the influence of Maryland’s congresswoman.

Upon her arrival in Congress, she became involved with national defense and the military, which represent a large constituency in Anne Arundel County. She was on the House Armed Services Committee and ultimately became its second-ranking member. She was the ranking member of its personnel subcommittee and was especially concerned with improving the situation for military personnel and their families. “I felt that it was very important not to let them down the way we did after Vietnam,” she says.

Another of her priorities was the Chesapeake Bay, and she worked closely with Maryland senator and fellow Republican Charles “Mac” Mathias to obtain millions of dollars in appropriations for efforts to clean up the endangered waterway.

Marjorie Holt often played a leadership role when it came to legislation involving women’s issues and on bills such as the one creating afterschool programs for latchkey children, with one of the most successful close to home in Brooklyn Park. She also was involved in legislation that created HUD’s urban homesteading program, which was particularly successful in Baltimore and is still turning renters into homeowners nationwide.

Reflecting on her time in the U.S. House of Representatives, Mrs. Holt sees a very different Congress in 2005 than the one she knew in the 1970s and ’80s. In those days, Republicans and Democrats shared committee staffs and worked together, “even conservatives and liberals,” she says. “I’ve always felt that the satisfaction came from getting the job done. It didn’t matter who got the credit. I always paid attention to my constituents’ concerns. I had a good staff and felt that we were there to make government work for the people.”

“Maybe I could have gone farther,” the 85-year-old grandmother of eight says a bit wistfully. She wishes she’d run against Barbara Mikulski for the senate. The Democratic congresswoman served with her in the House from 1977–87. “She’s a very good legislator,” Mrs. Holt says. “The first time out, I think I could have beaten her. But it was tough for Republicans in Maryland. If I got every vote that any Republican had ever gotten, I’d get 51 percent, and that’s not very good odds when you’ve got a safe district. I wasn’t quite ready to give up, but it would have been fun, win or lose.”

Marjorie Holt decided not to run for reelection in 1986 and resumed her practice of law. Anne Arundel countians haven’t forgotten that she was their voice in Washington, however, and still approach her with their problems in the grocery store and other public places.