A Man Without Duties

September 22, 1991|By JOHN FRECE

ANNAPOLIS — Annapolis. -- This provision of the Maryland Constitution is Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg's biggest political problem and greatest political asset:

Section 1A. Office of Lieutenant Governor created; duties; qualifications.

"There shall be a Lieutenant Governor, who shall have only the duties delegated to him by the Governor. . . ."

It gives him nothing to do -- and the right to say he's proud of it.

Thanks to his steadily deteriorating relationship with Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the 57-year-old former senator from Pikesville has become the nomad of the Schaefer administration, a roving ribbon-cutter with precious little else of importance to do.

But given Mr. Schaefer's decline in popularity and the broad array of no-win tax and budget issues his administration faces, Mr. Steinberg believes the split could not have occurred at a more opportune time if his campaign for governor in 1994 is to succeed.

Still, it has been a big fall for Mr. Steinberg, who in 1986 gave up the security and power of the state Senate presidency to become Mr. Schaefer's running mate, and who led or shared in some of the biggest political victories of the governor's first term.

These days, he no longer oversees the administration's legislative agenda and is rarely consulted on policy matters. A retributive governor has stripped him of his personal staff, and some of his demoralized legislative staff have simply quit. Mr. Schaefer has tagged him as disloyal and recently dumped him from one of his last remaining high profile jobs, the chairmanship of the Governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission.

So, instead of plying his considerable skills negotiating delicate legislative issues, Mr. Steinberg now spends much of his time greeting foreign dignitaries visiting the State House, attending groundbreakings or speaking to political clubs or other organizations around the state.

"I didn't want a ceremonial job. I didn't want an easy job. I made it a challenge," he says now, but vows, "I'm not going to just sit around, whether he gives me things to do or not."

Some of his admirers predict he will develop his own modest legislative agenda independent of his boss, and Mr. Steinberg concedes there are several bills he is already reviewing.

But he cautiously avoids criticizing Mr. Schaefer for his treatment, acknowledging that under the Constitution it is the governor's prerogative. He says he thinks the governor, who remains almost constantly at war with the General Assembly, probably needs his ability to work out differences with lawmakers more than ever. But he is resigned to the fact he is unlikely to get the call.

"As long as I'm treated halfway fairly, I wouldn't attack the governor," Mr. Steinberg says. "I don't feel comfortable in the position I'm in. I don't rejoice at this type of relationship. I think it hurts the performance of our job." But he scoffs at suggestions he might resign.

Some of his harshest critics, however, say it is he who has abandoned the administration, not the other way around.

"About all he's done is occupy space for the last two years," snapped one top Schaefer aide.

It is a sad fate for a man broadly credited with pushing to passage some of the landmark legislation of the Schaefer era: the Camden Yards' baseball stadium, the reorganization of Maryland's system of higher education and the creation of the light rail line through Baltimore, to name just three.

In those heady first years, it was Mickey Steinberg the negotiator, the compromiser, the guy who could make the unworkable work, who could take the most troubled bill and find the parts a majority of lawmakers could support. It was his greatest talent.

"Give me anything, and I'll hang my hat on it," Mr. Steinberg seemed to be saying. But he worked for a man who insisted: "Give me what I asked for, and I'll view anything less as a loss."

Back the new governor desperately needed Mr. Steinberg's legislative talent. Mr. Schaefer knew neither legislators nor legislative ways, and he made no secret of his dependence on and respect for Mr. Steinberg's abilities.

But as time passed, Mr. Schaefer's knowledge of state government expanded and his need for Mr. Steinberg shrank. His friends say it was a reality Mr. Steinberg never fully understood: that it would never again be the way it was those first exhilarating years.

Slowly, but steadily, differences between the two men also began to add up.

* They made conflicting public pronouncements on the shape of higher education reform, calling into question which one of them was setting policy.

* When the governor publicly sprung on legislators his plan for a light rail line without first seeking their consent in private, Mr. Steinberg sided with the angry lawmakers by criticizing this breach of protocol.

* They differed on a port reorganization bill and on a plan to bail out the financially troubled Peabody Conservatory of Music and on where to deploy the state's medevac helicopters.

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