In freezing out Steinberg, Schaefer did him a favor

Frank A. DeFilippo

March 28, 1991|By Frank A. DeFilippo

GOVERNOR SCHAEFER has done for his second banana what Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg might not have been able to do for himself.

Schaefer has saved Steinberg the trouble of trying to disengage himself from the administration by cutting him loose 3 1/2 years before the next election for governor. Steinberg is now free to pursue his own agenda without having to lug the heavy baggage of the Schaefer pratfalls in and outside of the legislature.

Yet by declaring himself an independent contractor, as he did on the Linowes tax restructuring plan, Steinberg may have accumulated a roster of powerful enemies. And in politics, the rule of reason is never get mad; get even.

There are three aspects to every successful campaign -- money, organization and media. What Steinberg is up to is slowly beginning to rise, like hot air, to the top: He's planning to run a split-level (in the convoluted language of Annapolis, bifurcated) campaign.

At one level he'll organize his campaign for governor through the General Assembly, especially the Senate, where he was president, and at the other he'll take his message to the public through the media. Steinberg is already organizing a series of small fund-raisers.

Steinberg is a creature of the legislature who's never forgotten his roots. By rejecting the Linowes tax package and refusing to testify in its behalf, Steinberg appeared to be declaring fealty to the legislature over his boss, the governor, a seditious act that caused Schaefer to accuse his lieutenant of back-stabbing.

Steinberg loves the legislature; the legislature loves Steinberg. Thus, the outline of the Steinberg campaign for governor is beginning to take shape. Legislative leaders are bemoaning the fact that Schaefer had Steinberg tethered during much of the session. Steinberg knows how to administer a message, and he's an expert in the art of the deal, the two forms of currency that work miracles in Annapolis.

The lack of accomplishments during this session reflect Steinberg's absence, either by choice or command. Much of Schaefer's major legislation is in tatters, shot down -- the ban on assault rifles, the report of the 2020 commission, the Linowes program, the gas tax, even the supplemental budget.

Compare the disasters of this year, for example, with the high times of Schaefer's first term when Steinberg helped to ramrod the new stadium, light rail, a gas tax increase, massive aid programs for the city, a new medevac helicopter program, the Peabody bailout, to name a few.

The reverse of the medal also glistens with opportunity for mischief. In aligning with the legislature, Steinberg not only defied Schaefer but also angered the groupies around him as well as the battalion of fund-raisers and loyalists who have hosted Schaefer first as mayor and now as governor.

Only a few feet of black and white marble squares separate the State House offices of the governor and lieutenant governor. But the cat fights and snits that occur between the two staffs reverberate in every corner and cranny of the State House.

The repository of power resides with the governor and his staff. ++ They control correspondence, appointments, schedules, news coverage, public functions, invitations, information. The governor has a staff of more than 100, the lieutenant governor maybe three or four. And as Schaefer has pointedly reminded Steinberg, the Constitution states that the governor shall define the duties of the lieutenant governor.

Cutting Steinberg off from the daily flow of government events for high crimes and misdemeanors is one form of punishment. Drying up campaign contributions is another. The application of both may soon begin to manifest themselves. But there are enough high-rollers who are willing to purchase access that even threats from Schaefer, now in the twilight of his political career, may not stop the flow of campaign cash to Steinberg.

There are only two kinds of people in government: whores and survivors. Transferring political loyalties is difficult at best. Many of Schaefer's staff members will soon be looking for work. Those who had hoped to ride out the final years and perhaps sign on with Steinberg may now find the shift of allegiance a tough one.

So now Steinberg heads out on his own, organizing a campaign independent of the Schaefer apparatus, an amiable practical joker who's keeping his eyes on the prize. He's been bad-mouthed by Schaefer as a traitor, and he's been blessed by the legislature as one who understands the basic rule of dealing with lawmakers: Never ask legislators to vote for something that'll hurt them back home.

That was the object of Steinberg's defection on Linowes. Schaefer never understood.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on Maryland politics.

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