Schmoke, Gibson rewrite the rules of political bossism

Frank A. DeFilippo

October 31, 1991|By Frank A. DeFilippo

IRV KOVENS was a political boss. He raised millions of dollars for his candidates but seldom meddled in the affairs of government or dealt with the press.

Larry Gibson is a political boss. He raises millions of dollars for his candidates and believes he has an absolute right to intrude in the business of government as well as to manipulate the media.

Kovens was deeply involved in dozens of campaigns over the years, especially those of Marvin Mandel and William Donald Schaefer.

Gibson likewise has been involved in a number of campaigns, notably those of Parren J. Mitchell, former state's attorney Milton Allen, former attorney general Stephen H. Sachs and Mayor Kurt Schmoke.

Gibson is associated with the law firm of Shapiro and Olander. Gibson, along with the firm's principal, Ronald M. Shapiro, constitute Schmoke's extended political family.

So far, it's been reported that the law firm has received $396,000 in fees for legal work performed for the city. That figure, however, does not include fees for legal work done for quasi-public agencies such as the Community Development Financing Corp.

Much of the type of city legal work that is now being done by Shapiro and Olander was performed by the city solicitor's officer under previous administrations.

When David M. Gillece departed as head of the newly sanitized Baltimore City Development Corp., Gibson recited from a prepared list several occasions on which he claimed Gillece had disappointed the Schmoke administration.

One of those occasions might have been the failed effort to maneuver the management contract for the Christopher Columbus Science Center away from the Rouse Co. to a Shapiro and Olander client, the Manekin Corp.

Each time a subcommittee of the center called for a vote on the award, city representatives delayed the vote in what was widely viewed as an attempt to change members' minds in favor of the Shapiro and Olander client.

Twice the vote was delayed at the request of the city during the critical final interviews with Rouse and Manekin. The delays were accomplished under the protective coloration of working out women's and minority participation in the project. When the roll was finally called, all five subcommittee members voted to award the contract to Rouse.

Among those delaying the award in behalf of the city was Honora M. Freeman, who was representing Schmoke's top aide, Lynnette Young, on the subcommittee. Young is a protege of Gibson. Gillece also represented the city on the subcommittee. Freeman later stepped over Gillece's dead body to assume the presidency of BCDC. Gillece actually submitted his resignation early in July but agreed to stay on the job until after the primary election.

Freeman, an attorney with virtually no experience in the high-rolling world of economic development, is a former two-year member of the Shapiro and Olander law firm who had an intermediate stop as an aide-de-camp in Schmoke's City Hall before her recent elevation to the $81,000-a-year job.

One person familiar with Gillece's departure said: "David had to please Larry Gibson and he didn't."

On the day before Schmoke led his ragtag "Save Our Cities" march on Washington in behalf of impecunious cities, Gibson assumed the roll of City Hall press secretary. Gibson called news rooms and editors in attempts to arrange news coverage of the event.

If Gibson was functioning as campaign manager, the business of the city has suddenly gotten commingled with campaign headquarters in an unnatural relationship.

When Schmoke was elected mayor in 1987, his transition headquarters was set up in the law offices of Shapiro and Olander.

In the spring of this campaign year, letters went out thanking contributors to Schmoke's re-election campaign. The distinguishing characteristic was, however, that the thank-you's went out over Gibson's signature and not Schmoke's. This in itself was either an act of arrogance on Gibson's part or a display of naivete by Schmoke -- if Schmoke was aware of the letter at all.

Gibson is merely the latest incarnation of political bossism in an era when bossism is supposed to be dead. In the rawest political context, Gibson is no different from Kovens.

Yet there is a very big difference. In the workaday world of politics, it's not what you put into politics that counts; it's what you get out of it that matters.

Political bosses rarely, if ever, seek political office. They choose instead to remain in the private sector beyond the legal and financial restraints of public service that could lead to conflicts of interest. Kovens made his money at his West Baltimore Street furniture emporium and on racetracks.

Come now Gibson and Shapiro. They've rewritten the rules by doing financial business directly with the very City Hall they've helped to populate. And Gibson has even empowered himself to evaluate the performance of appointed officials.

There's one more thing other political bosses never did. They never overshadowed the people they helped to elect.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes every other Thursday on Maryland politics.

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