Blessing in disguise for Steinberg Schaefer's snub serves to help his lieutenant governor.

November 15, 1991|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Evening Sun Staff

Pummeled by the one-two punch of state budget cuts and congressional redistricting, Maryland's body politic is checking its pulse to see if full recovery is near -- or even likely.

Almost every recognizable name in Annapolis wound up connected with some form of political pettiness during the special legislative session that ended last month.

Lawmakers say public outrage -- vented against them through phone calls, letters and radio talk shows -- reached an uncomfortable high a few weeks ago.

"We were not seen as comporting ourselves well," acknowledges Del. Charles J. Ryan, D-Prince George's, who chairs the House ** Appropriations Committee.

Since then, a few lawmakers have reported with sheepish optimism that some constituents appear to have survived the first six stages of the grieving process.

Outbreaks of anger and denial provoked by budget cuts and new congressional boundary lines have passed, and the acceptance stage -- where reality sinks in -- should be next. But another deep round of budget cuts is due within a month, and the high dudgeon brought on by the budget cleaver will begin anew.

Lawmakers, who have been invited into the governor's charnel house where budget decisions are made, are apt to be re-entered into the public's bad books once more.

When it's over, will there be any winners?

One unlikely beneficiary already may have gained stature at the end of the special session, if only because everyone else looked so bad.

The irony is that Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, who strolled away from the special session virtually unbloodied, probably would have been another victim of the political carnage had he been allowed to do what he wanted -- wade neck deep into budget decisions and redistricting.

Last May, when Gov. William Donald Schaefer was pondering appointments to his redistricting advisory panel, Steinberg volunteered to represent the administration.

Schaefer declined Steinberg's offer.

The governor, who loathes disloyalty, was still seething over Steinberg's public disagreement with the governor's proposed $800 million Linowes tax package. It is widely believed that he declined the offer because he didn't want to give his second-in-command any high-profile tasks. He also has removed Steinberg from other visible posts.

Steinberg wants to be governor. Schaefer, prohibited by law from seeking a third term, is not doing anything to boost Steinberg's chances.

When it came time to lop $450 million from the state budget, Steinberg was waiting in the wings for his boss to ask his advice on how to do it.

Once again, Schaefer left Steinberg in deep freeze. He told Stein

berg to review the state's roster of ubiquitous task forces -- political busy work -- and turned his own attention to the two issues that would later rock the state's fiscal and political foundations.

So no one had Steinberg in mind when the governor's proposed budget cuts sent thousands of outraged protesters to the State House.

But there was Steinberg, in full view of the TV cameras, telling threatened state troopers that if he had his way, they might not be faced with losing their jobs.

When Maryland's Senate and House leaders wrangled for weeks over new congressional boundaries, General Assembly veterans say they missed Steinberg's legendary back room peacemaking abilities. But no one blamed him for not being there, or for the unpopularity of any particular plan.

So when critics of budget and redistricting plans looked for targets of opportunity, they aimed at nearly everyone but the lieutenant governor, including those who rank as Steinberg's top potential competitors in 1994.

For example, Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall, a savvy GOP veteran whose name tops the roster of many Republicans hoping to take over the State House in 1994, was left grappling with an $8 million budget problem passed on to him by the state. Forcing county workers to take either pay cuts or layoffs, Neall wound up on a lot of hit lists.

Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening, struggling with $28 million in state aid cuts, has been calling for more taxes. That's unlikely to endear the Democratic contender to the public.

As a result, in some circles Steinberg is seen as a man of cool-headed reason. And he didn't even have to rise above the fray to do it. He merely had to watch as others slipped.

Another view has it that Steinberg is no longer a player in Annapolis, that his sideline role during the tumultuous weeks past only illustrates his lack of influence.

"Mickey's not a player," notes one Schaefer aide. "Institutionally, he has no role except what's given to him by the governor. Consequently, I think he's going to be more irrelevant as time goes on."

Maybe. But when a split in the state Democratic Party developed over the future of party chairman Nate Landow, what high state official came out on the winning side? Schaefer? Nope. He wanted Landow out. Top party members voted to keep Landow as chairman, but only after Steinberg -- a Landow supporter -- appealed to their sense of unity and composure.

When it comes time for voters to recall the names of those lawmakers who angered them this fall, Steinberg's won't be on the list.

For this reason, and because political fortunes can change overnight, Steinberg is expected to act swiftly to capitalize on his stature. He'll add more quiet breakfast fund- raisers to his agenda. And it will be no problem for him to accumulate the $100,000 war chest he wants as evidence that he's capable of raising money without really trying.

And all this because Schaefer wanted to keep Steinberg in the shadows.

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