A SUBTLE but perceptible power shift is occurring in Annapolis, and the newest State House board game is Who's the Odd Man Out?
Is it Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg? Or Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, D-Prince George's? Or House Speaker Clayton Mitchell, D-Queen Anne's? Or is it Governor Schaefer himself?
When Steinberg and Miller, the Bartles and Jaymes of Maryland politics, helped Nathan Landow survive an attempt to eject him as Democratic Party chairman, they were thumbing their noses at Schaefer as well as establishing IOUs for 1994.
When Mitchell got chummy with Schaefer over the congressional redistricting map that eventually won out over Miller's plan, the bargaining material was legislative reapportionment in 1992 and another chance to stick it to Miller and maybe Landow, too.
Yet it's Mitchell who keeps poking his finger in Schaefer's eye on the matter of a state tax revision (read increase) and who seems to have wriggled himself into a corner on the issue of spending priorities.
That the high side of Maryland politics is so fluid three years before the next election for governor has much to do with the revisionist views of Schaefer, the man who is nominally at the top of the power pyramid.
Schaefer is being bum-rapped for everything from last summer's drought to the price of pumpernickel bagels. To be sure, much of it is the governor's own antic behavior, but much is also Marylanders' outrage over matters (like the economic decession) that are largely beyond his control.
And while Schaefer's not quite yet a lame duck, in the public eye and in the polls he's limping noticeably. He had to skip the Orioles' final game at Memorial Stadium because sports fans are notoriously inhospitable to public officials. Schaefer was spat upon during a recent visit to the Eastern Shore. On radio talk shows there are even suggestions of impeachment. And it's been a long time, if ever, since a governor lost a battle over the chairmanship of his own party.
Enter Steinberg (and his sidekick, Miller) into a political environment that's decidedly anti-Schaefer, one in which it may be a long-term advantage for a lieutenant governor to run against his own boss.
Schaefer has stripped Steinberg of everything but his epaulets and his office. But Steinberg has the quick tongue and droll sense of humor to bend the humiliations in his favor. In an amusing turn of the screw, the more Schaefer picks on Steinberg, the better it plays in the boondocks because it illuminates the mean streak in Schaefer and underlines one more reason for his current unpopularity. Steinberg is also enormously popular with members of the General Assembly, where he was Senate president.
By rescuing Landow, Steinberg and Miller resonated with a widespread sentiment within the Democratic hierarchy that Schaefer is a Democrat in name only. Landow beat Schaefer (and Schaefer's political operatives) by doing what Democrats do best -- practicing basic organization politics, lining up his votes before the showdown and, it is said, honoring the charming tradition of walk-around money by promising $1,000 to each of the 24 local Democratic central committees.
For his part, Miller is a pointillist without a point. He'll scream and scrap just for the sake of a good battle, especially if it's a partisan brawl. Miller is a rough-and-tumble clubhouse poll from Prince George's County where they drink Evian out of the bottle and chew barbed wire for breakfast.
After defying Schaefer and looping a lifeline to Landow, Miller will be back in Annapolis next season thumping his chest and spoiling for another good fight. He may get it on reapportionment, Schaefer's last great chance at get-even politics before he heads into the sunset of his administration.
As for Mitchell, he floats with the issues, picking one here and choosing one there like a legislative ragpicker. Yet Mitchell has been the single most influential force in Annapolis on state tax policy.
Mitchell's vehement opposition to a general tax increase overrode the wishes of Schaefer as well as the sentiment of Miller and other members of the assembly. As a result, no increase in the income or sales tax was voted this year, and probably won't be next year.
So just who's on top of the heap in Annapolis these days depends on which day you ask and who jumped last.
Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on Maryland politics.