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Louis Goldstein’s Leadership Lessons
“How can a man who collects taxes,” Gov. William Donald Schaefer asked at Louis L. Goldstein’s 81sth birthday party in 1994, “be so popular?” That is perhaps the greatest achievement of this great Marylander, who was born 106 years ago on March 14, 2013. In our era of cynicism and distrust about politics, it’s easy to overlook what this steady, tireless public servant achieved beyond his years of fiscal vigilance as Maryland’s Comptroller: he made good government popular.
Louis L. “Louie” Goldstein was born in 1913 in Calvert County, son of a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe. He graduated from Washington College (where I teach, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore) in 1935, earned a law degree from the University of Maryland, and began his political career in 1938 as a member of the House of Delegates.
Except for the five years he spent in the Marines during and after the Second World War, Louie spent the rest of his life—six decades—in elective office in Maryland. He also served on his alma mater’s Board of Visitors and Governors for more than four decades, including 18 years as Chairman of the Board of Washington College. When he died in 1998, Louie was running for an 11th consecutive term as Maryland’s Comptroller, and ranked as the longest-serving elected official in the United States. He was “Mr. Maryland”: a beloved figure famous for attending tens of thousands of local events all over Maryland and a trademark greeting, “God bless y’all real good.” But Louie was also a canny financier, a careful steward of public works, and a successful businessman. Above all, he was an immensely talented politician who saw politics as a true calling. The recollections of those who saw him in action suggest five leadership lessons that shaped how Louie Goldstein lived his life, and the impact he had on so many people.
Louie loved to campaign. Once, stumping western Maryland for votes, he gave a speech to a few unresponsive people in a small town, only realizing later on that he had veered into West Virginia. In Chestertown, enthusiastically working a crowd in a department store, he shook hands with a mannequin. Former Maryland Senator Paul Sarbanes, in remarks at Louie’s funeral, said, “They broke the mold after Louie. He was a man of warmth and enthusiasm who practiced the politics of joy, not the politics of hate.”
Rich Gillin, Ernest A. Howard Professor of English at Washington College, recalls a ceremony honoring Louie as the longest serving elected official in the United States. “I asked him,” Gillin says, “how does it feel to be an admired statesman?” “He replied, ‘I am not a statesman. Statesmen are dead. I’m a politician.’ ”
After Louie died in 1998, Thomas V. Miller, president of the State Senate, said, “He was an old breed of politician, who brought Republicans and Democrats together.” He was someone, Miller added, “who believed that government service was public service. He believed it was a noble calling.”
After his death, he was the first elected official to lie in state under the Rotunda of the state capitol in Annapolis.
It’s about people.
“He cared more about people,” recalls Washington College chief of staff Joe Holt ’83, “than just about any politician I’ve ever interacted with.” On one stop at the college, he visited the site of the new fitness center, and greeted half the construction workers by name: “Louie asked after their parents, aunts, and relatives,” recalls Holt. “I saw that time and time again in him, small kindnesses like that.”
Louie once credited his father for his attention to people: “He taught me to be kind, be polite, remember people’s name, remember their children and their backgrounds. I still do that the same way, give people responsibility, accountability and service. How can you beat that?”
Carry a spare pair of shoes and socks.
Louie’s legendary energy had a secret, according to Washington College Emeritus Professor Terry Scout: “He always carried a spare pair of shoes and socks wherever he went. He always felt he could get another six hours out of himself if he changed his shoes and socks.”
No flat roofs.
As Comptroller, Louie sat on the Board of Public Works, approving most state contracts and major capital projects. He gained a reputation for ferreting out waste and sniffing out bad design ideas. Washington College’s former Director of Physical Plant, Reid Raudenbush, had vivid memories of Louie’s long tenure on Washington College’s Buildings and Grounds Committee: “He would sit back and look at Dr. Stettler, Vice President of Finance, and me, and ask if our proposed structure was going to have a flat roof. ‘I hate a building with a flat roof—nothing but trouble.’ And once we assured him the roof wouldn’t be flat, the meetings usually went well. Of course, when we were designing what would become Goldstein Hall, we told the architects that none of the roofs could be flat. None are.”
Louie ended just about every day by returning home to his wife and three children. “I sleep better in my own bed,” he would say, “than anywhere else.’ ” His marriage to Hazel may have been part of what helped Louie forge an identity beyond partisan labels: “Every night,” he told a friend, “I go to bed with a Republican.”
Louis Goldstein taught generations of Marylanders that politics could be decent and even noble. He served six decades in elective office and managed the state’s finances with prudence, diligence, and never a whiff of scandal. In a lifetime of politics, he visited every corner of the state, shook the hands of hundreds of thousands of people, and handed out innumerable plastic gold coins stamped with his trademark phrase, “God bless y’all real good.”
In our America today, overflowing with civic rancor and disdain, with historically low levels of public confidence in government institutions, it is good to remember that people like Louie gave the long labor of their lives to public service. Thinking about Louie’s story, and the citizens, volunteers, public servants, and politicians I’ve actually met, makes me think that there are more Louie Goldsteins out there than you might think. So maybe Louie’s leadership lessons have some life in them yet.
Happy birthday, Louie. God bless y’all real good.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn, and an earlier version was printed in the Baltimore Sun in 2013.