Edge of the Volcano

BARRY RASCOVAR

March 10, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Living on the edge of a volcano poses immense dangers. Ask Mickey Steinberg. He's been forced to exist close to Annapolis' most ferocious -- and unpredictable -- natural wonder since 1987.

Mr. Steinberg desperately wants to avoid being consumed in the increasingly fiery eruptions occurring on Mt. William Donald Schaefer. Maryland's governor is making life increasingly difficult for his lieutenant governor.

It has been a troubled marriage ever since Mr. Schaefer chose Mr. Steinberg, then Senate president, for his 1986 ticket over the apparent front runner, Del. R. Clayton Mitchell. It was a political decision, based on the belief Mr. Steinberg's inclusion would ensure victory.

The two men have never been close. Mickey Steinberg is a consensus-seeking product of the state legislature. He understands what it takes to craft a bill that will make it through the legislative maze.

Don Schaefer, on the other hand, is a product of the Baltimore City Council. As mayor, he mastered the art of running an impoverished city through one-man rule. When it comes to dealing with an independent legislature, Mr. Schaefer -- unlike Mr. Steinberg -- is on foreign soil.

Mr. Schaefer trusts only those whose loyalty has been proven over the years. That does not include Mr. Steinberg, who has been fingered by Schaefer aides as siding too often with the hated legislature.

There were signs last fall that the Schaefer inner circle intended to isolate Mr. Steinberg even more in the second term. Schaefer campaign literature, for instance, made no mention of the lieutenant governor.

This led to Mr. Steinberg's first act of defiance. When the Schaefer camp set up a fund-raising arm under the Steinberg name without his permission, the lieutenant governor called it "overkill" and "arrogance" by a governor with $2 million in the bank.

"Blasphemy," cried Schaefer sycophants. It was viewed as an indication Mr. Steinberg wanted to distance himself from Mr. Schaefer in preparation for his own gubernatorial bid.

Friends of Mr. Steinberg call it political self-preservation.

The governor's frequent temper tantrums have sharply diminished his popularity and effectiveness. Meanwhile, Mr. Steinberg's savvy legislative advice -- he was the architect of most Schaefer triumphs in the first term -- is being ignored. As a result, this year's top Schaefer initiatives are headed for defeat.

The latest break occurred when the lieutenant governor refused to accept the governor's "all or nothing" position on the Linowes tax plan. At one meeting, Mr. Steinberg pressed for a compromise.

The governor's response? No way. "I'm not letting the bastards off the hook," he told the lieutenant governor.

Mr. Steinberg, not wishing to be a part of this kamikaze flight, begged off from testifying at the hearing on the Linowes bill. "The son of a bitch took a walk," said one bitter Schaefer assistant. "He doesn't want to be associated with anything controversial because he's running for governor in 1994."

Steinberg supporters see it differently. "Mickey knows you can't bludgeon these guys in the legislature," said one Steinberg friend. "Schaefer's approach is self-defeating."

The net result: Mr. Schaefer led the administration's team himself in appearing before the legislature on the Linowes bill. It was a fruitless exercise.

Earlier in the day, the governor made his bitterness clear at a meeting with legislative leaders when he turned to his lieutenant governor and said, "Thanks, Mickey, for stabbing me in the back."

Meanwhile, the governor continues to burn his bridges, turning Del. Timothy Maloney -- a key member of the Appropriations Committee -- from an ally into a puzzled detractor by his angry tirade over a modest budget cut.

Mr. Schaefer's actions also have alienated House Speaker Mitchell, who started the session on excellent terms with the governor but no longer can comprehend the governor's outbursts. "Schaefer's now out to cut Mitchell apart," said one administration official.

That leaves Mr. Schaefer with few friends in the legislature, and a growing number of disenchanted citizens.

It also leaves his lieutenant governor in a perilous predicament: The more Mickey Steinberg speaks his mind in preparation for 1994, the more he enrages Don Schaefer. But to remain silent as Mr. Schaefer lurches from one political debacle to another could also sink Mr. Steinberg's election hopes. That's the chance you take living so close to the volcano.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of The Sun's editorial pages.

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