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Stephen H. Sachs, the 40th attorney general of Maryland and a mentor to a countless number of Democratic political reformers, died in his Baltimore apartment Wednesday morning after a brief illness. He was 87.
Sachs had been in declining health for several weeks and his physical condition had deteriorated rapidly since the weekend, his daughter, Elisabeth A. Sachs, said in an interview.
“I knew it was coming and he knew it was coming,” she said. “He died peacefully in his apartment. It was what he wanted.”
Sachs was a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland in the early and mid-1960’s and rose to greater prominence in state legal and political circles when President Lyndon Johnson appointed him U.S. attorney in 1967. He returned to private practice in 1970, but entered the political fray in 1978 when he became a reform-minded candidate for attorney general in the Democratic primary.
Maryland at the time was wracked by political scandals involving several top elected officials, including former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, a former governor, and Marvin Mandel, the outgoing Democratic governor. Sachs ran as a foe of well-established Democratic machines, noting that attorneys general typically had been linked with governors.
“The attorney general should not be the French fries that goes along with the Big Mac,” he said on the campaign trail. “The attorney general should be independent. The attorney general should be the people’s lawyer.”
Timothy F. Maloney, who would become a state delegate from Prince George’s County and is now one of the most prominent attorneys and political counselors in Maryland, was a paid staffer to Sachs’ campaign when he was just 19 years old.
“It was like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus,” Maloney recalled in an interview Wednesday. “I was star-struck.”
With Sachs’ election as attorney general in 1978, and the surprise election of Harry R. Hughes (D) as governor, state politics entered a “new era” and a period of political reform, Maloney said.
“That race was really iconic,” Elisabeth Sachs observed.
Sachs, Maloney said, modernized the attorney general’s office and his tenure served as a template for all of the Maryland attorneys general who came after him.
“He was a magnificent lawyer and an even better human being,” he said.
Sachs sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1986 and was initially considered the frontrunner over then-Maryland House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin. But Democratic political bosses persuaded Cardin to stand down (he wound up winning a seat in Congress that year) and recruited then-Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer to run for the Democratic nomination instead. Schaefer, a high-profile and popular figure, won the primary handily, taking 62% to Sachs’ 35%.
Although Sachs’ political career ended when he was at the relatively young age of 52, and he returned to private practice at a prominent Washington, D.C., law firm, he remained on the edges of the political scene, serving as a mentor to scores of younger Democrats. His protégés include Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D); U.S. Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.), who is now running for attorney general; Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City); and former Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, who is now running for governor.
“I consider him one of the greatest attorneys general of Maryland,” Frosh said in a statement. “He did not shy away from taking on difficult challenges. Among his many groundbreaking accomplishments, he refused early in his first term to defend the state practice of warehousing developmentally-challenged and mentally ill individuals, leading to their release from state custody. He was a champion of civil rights and a leader of election reform. He was a superbly talented lawyer that could hold his own, whether arguing before the Supreme Court or in front of a jury.”
Brown, in a statement, recalled meeting Sachs when he was a young lawyer at the Washington, D.C., firm Wilmer, Hale, Pickering, where Sachs was a partner, and called him “a man of keen intellect and generosity.”
Retired Baltimore City judge Catherine Curran O’Malley, a candidate for attorney general this year, called Sachs “a role model for me as an attorney and judge and for every Maryland Attorney General who followed him – including my father Joe Curran.”
Perez said “integrity and accomplishment were [Sachs’] middle names. He was a mentor, a friend, advisor, father figure, and towering figure in our state.”
On the opening day of the General Assembly Wednesday, top legislative leaders paid tribute to Sachs on the House and Senate floors.
Senate Finance Committee Chair Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) credited Sachs and his wife, Sheila, for her presence in the legislature.
“One of the reasons I’m probably here is because Steve and Sheila Sachs came to me … and asked me to run and they did the first walk-through of the neighborhood with me,” Kelley said. “They were really great friends”
In addition to his daughter, who is the director of government reform and strategic initiatives for Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D), Sachs is survived by a son, Leon Sachs, a professor of modern and classical languages at the University of Kentucky, and three grandchildren. Sheila Sachs, his wife of 58 years, died in 2019.
Services and burial for Sachs are private. Elisabeth Sachs said the family would plan a public memorial in the spring.
“We’re going to hold out for an in-person celebration of his life,” she said.
Hannah Gaskill and Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.