Gladys Noon Spellman rose through the ranks of Maryland politics to become an influential advocate for the federal workforce in the U.S. House of Representatives. Elected in 1974 to a large freshman class of Democrats, Spellman joined the front ranks of the “freshman revolt” bent on reforming con–gressional practices. Very quickly, however, she settled into a role as a Representative dedicated to district work, securing what had been a tenuous first victory.1 Within a short span of six years she became a widely popular local politician in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., before suffering a heart attack that left her permanently incapacitated.
She was born Gladys Blossom Noon in New York City on March 1, 1918, daughter of Henry and Bessie Noon, and was educated in the New York City and Washington, D.C., public schools.2 After attending George Washington University and the graduate school of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Spellman taught in the public schools of Prince George’s County, Maryland, a suburban area northeast of Washington, D.C. Gladys Noon married Reuben Spellman, and they raised three children: Stephen, Richard, and Dana. Gladys Spellman made her mark as a crusading Parent Teacher Association leader before winning election to the Prince George’s County board of commissioners in 1962. At first, she faced a cool reception from her colleagues. One remarked, “You think just like a man.” Spellman took that as a compliment, at first. “Then I got angry and said, ‘Well, I guess today was an off–day for me. Tomorrow I’ll be myself and do better.’”3 A county executive recalled years later that his nickname for Spellman—“Madame Tinkerbell”—derived from her ability to use her ebullient personality, her broad smile, and her uncanny ability to recall names to engage voters and work a room.4 She was re–elected in 1966 and chaired the board for two years, the first woman ever to lead the county. In 1970, when Prince George’s County changed to a charter form of government, Spellman won election to the county council as an at–large member, serving from 1971 to 1974.
In 1974, when U.S. Representative Lawrence J. Hogan declined to run for re–election in order to seek the party’s nomination as Maryland gubernatorial candidate, Spellman entered the race to succeed the three–term Republican. Historically, the congressional district which wrapped around Washington’s northern and eastern suburbs and swung into southern Maryland had been solidly Democratic since the mid–1920s. To the south and east it was composed of farms and rural communities, while on the northern and western side it was made up of suburban communities wedged between the capital and Baltimore. The federal government, which had major installations in the district, employed a large number of workers. Only two Republicans ever had held the seat: a one–termer who rode Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidential coattails in 1952 and Hogan who won in 1968 when Richard Nixon and Maryland native son Spiro Agnew made up the winning GOP presidential ticket (they nearly carried Maryland as well and, in 1972, won it convincingly).
Spellman easily won the September 1974 Democratic primary with 67 percent against Karl H. Matthes, a political unknown, accumulating more total votes than Matthes and the two GOP primary contenders combined, including Prince George’s County Councilman John B. Burcham, Jr., the eventual Republican winner.5 The seat was hotly contested with prominent politicians from both parties campaigning in the district—House Speaker Carl Albert and Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts for Spellman and President Gerald R. Ford and Representative Hogan for Burcham.6 The candidates divided on some hot–button issues. While both candidates opposed a plan by President Ford to add a five percent federal surtax to bring inflation under control, Spellman attacked the GOP, arguing that the election “ought to be a referendum on the Republican handling of the economy.” Instead, it was a referendum on an issue neither of the candidates addressed squarely: the Watergate Scandal that had forced the resignation of President Nixon in August 1974. According to a Washington Post poll conducted in late October 1974, nearly a quarter of all suburban Maryland voters said that they would be less likely to cast their vote for a Republican.7 Nationally, the scandal contributed to a string of GOP losses in five 1974 special elections and the November general elections. Republicans lost a total of 48 seats, creating an even larger Democratic majority in Congress. Nevertheless, Spellman only narrowly defeated Burcham, 53 percent to 47 percent of the vote.8
Spellman entered the House as one of seven leaders of the so–called “freshman revolt” of the class of 1974, which sought to extend reforms of congressional procedure to secure better committee assignments for first–term Members and to weaken the power of committee chairmen. Spellman was appointed to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, a panel reinstituted in 1973 to allow party leaders to assert more control over the committee assignment process and to shape legislative policy.9 Congresswoman Spellman avowed, “We may be new kids on the block, but we’re not stupid”—an allusion to her frustration with chairmen who underestimated the expertise and clout of freshman “Watergate Babies.”10 Many reforms already had been pushed through at the end of the preceding Congress and, in January 1975, the freshmen Members of the 94th Congress (1975–1977) provided momentum to help depose three entrenched southern committee chairmen and appoint new Members to prominent committees.
Yet, within six months, Representative Spellman’s focus rested almost entirely on issues pertinent to her district from which her office received hundreds of phone calls and as many letters each day. “You don’t always want to stay in kindergarten,” Spellman explained about her decision to decline the chairmanship of the freshman caucus. “We accomplished a great deal, and now we’ve been made a part of the establishment. We don’t always have to be just freshmen.” But observers noted that political necessity changed Spellman’s focus. Vague statements by former Representative Hogan that he would challenge her in 1976, her thin margin of victory in 1974, and the demands of constituent service for a district located astride the capital forced her reconsideration. Spellman hinted that the latter concern more than any other caused her to reorient her attention from institutional reform to district caretaking. “Mine is the kind of district,” she said, “that requires a lot of time and attention.”11 She dedicated herself to attending citizen meetings across the district, answering constituent mail personally, developing a newsletter, and distributing “listening post reports” (that included her home phone number) which requested suggestions from local residents.12
Over time, Spellman became one of the most popular figures in Maryland politics. In a 1976 rematch against Burcham, the Congresswoman ran on her record as a reformer and as a politician closely attuned to the needs of her constituents. She declared that she had participated in a movement that had “opened the doors wide and pumped fresh air back into the smoke–filled rooms” of the Capitol.13 In the 1976 election she widened her margin of victory against Burcham to 57 percent. In subsequent campaigns against other GOP opponents, Spellman widened her margins: 77 percent in 1978 and 80 percent in 1980.14
During her three terms in Congress, Spellman served on the Committee on Banking, Currency, and Housing (renamed the Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs Committee after the 94th Congress) and the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. In 1977 she favored legislation to establish a bank to make loans to cooperatives owned by consumers and legislation to extend the federal revenue–sharing program. She also voted in 1975 for $7 billion in loan guarantees to aid financially troubled New York City.
Nearly 40 percent of the workforce in Spellman’s district was employed by the federal government, at the time, the largest percentage of any congressional district in the country. Spellman was carefully attuned to its needs. As chair of the Subcommittee of Compensation and Employee Benefits of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee, she frequently used her position to advance the interests of federal employees. She sought to derail President James Earl “Jimmy” Carter’s 1978 reform of the civil service, which planned to merge the federal retirement program with Social Security. Spellman also pushed for cost of living adjustments and opposed hiring freezes. She was particularly critical of the proposed Senior Executive Service, which she feared would politicize the civil service. Spellman also favored an amendment to the 1970 Intergovernmental Personnel Act which would have authorized a subsidy to train civil servants in management–labor relations. She was especially sensitive to the morale of the federal workforce which, in the post–Watergate years, became a favorite target for “anti–Washington” candidates. In her newsletter, she often devoted a “Beautiful Bureaucrat” column to praise federal workers and insist that the vast majority of them were people who “far from slowing down the wheels of government are really the people who keep them churning.”15
On October 31, 1980, two days before the general election in which she was re–elected to a fourth term, Spellman suffered a severe heart attack. She survived but lapsed into a coma from which she never regained consciousness.16 House Resolution 80, passed on February 24, 1981, declared Spellman’s seat vacant, since she was unable to discharge the duties of her office. It marked the first time the House had ever vacated the seat of a Member who had become mentally or physically impaired. The next day the Washington Post, while observing that the move “was only right” for representation of her district, celebrated Spellman’s “brilliant” career: it “remains a classic for all who would seek public office and serve successfully.”17 Her husband, Reuben, was a Democratic candidate in the April 1981 special primary to choose nominees to succeed her. He finished second out of a field of six candidates; the winner of the primary, Steny Hoyer, also won the general election. Gladys Spellman died in Rockville, Maryland, on June 19, 1988.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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