A Hard Fight over an Insignificant Job

BARRY RASCOVAR

November 17, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR | BARRY RASCOVAR,Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun.

Not a single Marylander's life was affected by the state Democratic Party's recent decision to retain Nathan Landow as party chairman. But shock waves from that 23-12 executive committee vote are still reverberating in the State House.

Heading the state Democratic Party is a thankless job. You have no power. You are ignored by office holders. Most party members don't even recognize your existence -- or care. Yet for millionaire developer Nate Landow, this post could be a stepping stone to bigger things.

Because Maryland has been a one-party state for decades, the Democratic Party hierarchy plays an insignificant role. Until last year's election, the party's dominance was so complete that most important races were decided on primary day, not in the general election.

This left party functionaries with nothing to do. Elected officials came into office with no party obligations and no sense of loyalty. Officials in Maryland get elected on the basis of personal appeal and personal organization, without help from the party apparatus.

That's how William Donald Schaefer came up through the ranks. In nearly 40 years of campaigning, Mr. Schaefer never had to worry about a Republican foe. As long as he made it through the primary, Mr. Schaefer knew he was assured of holding office.

Thus it comes as no surprise that Mr. Schaefer has scant respect for the Democratic apparatus. He's never needed its help. And he's never gone out of his way to help the party.

He underlined his distain for party matters at the last two Democratic presidential conventions, when he thumbed his nose at the formal meetings in favor of visits to local zoos and other tourist sites. He found them more interesting.

Party loyalty means little to Mr. Schaefer. Some of his most ardent backers are Republicans. He embraced the GOP nominee for governor, Robert A. Pascal, in 1982, and later made him his gubernatorial patronage aide. His first drug czar was Robert R. Neall, now the Anne Arundel County Executive and the leading GOP contender to succeed Mr. Schaefer in 1994.

Given his history of disinterest in the party, why was Mr. Schaefer so exercised over the fate of the Democratic party chairman?

The governor has never liked sharing the limelight, especially with one who owes his post to Mr. Schaefer. Once Mr. Landow was ensconced as party chairman with a mandate from the governor to invigorate the party, he went overboard. He was so zealous in raising money and modernizing the party, politicos found him domineering. The breaking point was his attempt to impose a solution on the testy issue of congressional redistricting.

This infuriated several of the state's members of Congress, who felt the party chairman was out to save Rep. Tom McMillen, a Landow ally, at their expense. It also embittered the governor, who saw the party chairman as a threat to his own power.

Moreover, Mr. Schaefer was livid because the Landow plan would have annihilated Republican Helen Bentley, the governor's favorite congresswoman. Mrs. Bentley is Maryland's crucial link to the White House. She also is the Port of Baltimore's best lobbyist and a potent voice for federal largess in Maryland.

Mr. Landow's efforts to terminate Mrs. Bentley's career put him in the well-known Schaefer dog house.

But the governor botched the "dump Landow" drive. First, he sent intermediaries to the party chairman urging him to resign. Mr. Landow refused, saying he would do so only if requested directly by the governor.

Next, Schaefer aide Pam Kelly started soliciting support within the party's executive committee. The administration went public with this campaign, announcing it had the votes to force Mr. Landow to resign. But the party chief refused to take the bait. He was a better vote-counter than Ms. Kelly.

The outcome wasn't close. Members of the executive committee owed much to Mr. Landow and almost nothing to Mr. Schaefer. bTC The party chairman had tended to his flock; the governor hadn't.

Mr. Schaefer came away from this fight bloodied. Once again, his power was diminished, his position successfully challenged. Legislators in Annapolis took note. The governor's weakened condition was spotlighted for everyone to see.

Now Mr. Landow can use his triumph to promote himself for national party prominence. If the Democrats blow yet another presidential election in a big way, the party might turn to a proven giant-killer and big-league fund-raiser.

As for Mr. Schaefer, he can take little solace. His power play ended in embarrassment. It will make it harder for him to assume a dominant role with legislators in upcoming budget talks. He is a badly wounded lame duck staring at three long years in office.

One cynic described this obscure struggle as "the pettiness of very petty people competing for very petty prizes." That may be true, but it's the impression that often counts in politics. And the impression left by Mr. Schaefer in this internal party squabble was of weakness, not strength.

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