For Maryland politicians, it's back to the basics -- people

Frank A. DeFilippo

October 25, 1990|By Frank A. DeFilippo

SMART politicians are getting back to basics.

After having the stuffing kicked out of them in the primary elections, and after grasping that the electorate is in no mood for monkey business, many candidates are turning their attention back to people.

... Gradually, over the past quarter of a century, politics and campaigns have become the captives of a tiny cohort of media and political consultants. Not only have they shut out the public; they've also shut out the media.

For much of that time, consultants were backstage operatives. Rarely were they ever seen or heard, let alone quoted. Now they have become more important, certainly more powerful, than the candidates themselves. They have created campaigns without candidates by becoming stand-ins for candidates.

Worse, consultants have taken us to the high point of absurdity. They have depoliticized politics by stifling debate over public policy and creating campaigns devoid of issues.

The newly gained power of political consultants was demonstrated in Kansas the other day by one of the trade's most audacious practitioners. Roger Ailes, a Republican mischief-maker and producer of President Bush's celebrated Willie Horton commercial, called a news conference to denounce his client's political opponent. And instead of boycotting the news conference unless Ailes' candidate did the dirty work himself, the media let him get away with it.

Hereabouts, the most visible example of a candidate rejecting his managers and consultants and assuming command of his own campaign occurred when Gov. William Donald Schaefer took to the streets again after virtually sitting out the primary election.

For the primary campaign, Schaefer's mediameisters confected a campaign of contagion, hoping to enlist a million Marylanders in goo-goo volunteer programs. It fizzled, and badly at that. They forgot that politics is the last blood sport.

For the general election, they have him looking right down the barrel of the camera, giving us a stern, Dutch-uncle call to action. In fact, one of Schaefer's television commercials even tries to capitalize on his shortcomings by highlighting his impatience. The message? Hey! It's supposed to take the edge off criticism that Schaefer's a bull among the legislative china shop.

But more important than television commercials, Schaefer is back on the road, pounding the bricks and pressing the flesh. He zip-tripping around the state in his designer bus, working the Eastern Shore like a whirling dervish, there to recover from an ego-bruising poor showing in the primary.

There was a time when Schaefer never would have listened to a consultant or a campaign manager. His instincts have been sharpened by nearly 40 years in politics and, after all, the taproot of his political career is Baltimore's neighborhood and community associations.

There is a big difference this year from the duke-it-out campaign of 1986. This is the first campaign in Schaefer's political career without the services of Irv Kovens, whose West Baltimore emporium was the command post that took Schaefer from City Council member, through the echelons of council president and mayor, and finally to the State House in Annapolis.

Kovens attended to the care and feeding of the galoots in the precincts. Think what you will about the man, Kovens was a merry prankster. He could raise a million bucks, create excitement with money, put the troops on the streets and turn on a festival atmosphere on election day. To get his way, he could, as one observer put it, give Bufferin a headache.

But Kovens is dead. And so is much of his organization. Even his political style and panache are banished to a reliquary. Maybe that's what's missing from politics today. The old bosses have been replaced by new bosses, the political consultants. The difference? The old bosses never lost touch with people.

In Schaefer's case, Kovens and Schaefer's other political knockabouts such as the late Sol Liss, Allen Spector, Sen. Joseph Bonvegna and Willie Myers, have been replaced by technocrats out of law and graduate schools who wouldn't know a political clubhouse from an outhouse. Technology has its limits, even in politics.

Worse, Schaefer had no serious opposition to energize both himself and his campaign. If he had, it's a sure bet he and his handlers would never have rolled the dice on the disastrous voluntarism experiment in the primary election. By contrast, Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein is the best one-on-one politician in the state, one who never lost touch with the people. He out-polled Schaefer by 40,000 votes in the primary.

It's been noted that generals and politicians always fight the last battle. But this has been a campaign year that most politicians will try to forget, not replicate.

Woodrow Wilson wisely observed: "The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people." Shrewd politicians are looking around at 1990 and discovering that they'd better begin listening more to the people than to consultants. Schaefer may be among the first. Either that or he's beginning to believe his own myth.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on Maryland politics.


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