It's All the Fault of the Invisible Man

BARRY RASCOVAR

January 19, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR | BARRY RASCOVAR,Barry Rascovar is editorial page director of The Sun.

Who's to blame for the appalling mess in the Maryland State House?

Who's the villain in the continuing woes of Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the misadventures of the General Assembly as it tries fitfully to overcome Maryland's worst money crisis in decades?

Mickey.

That's right, Mickey Steinberg, the savvy lieutenant governor now gathering cobwebs in Mr. Schaefer's private gulag. The invisible man of Annapolis. The former miracle worker now viewed as a pariah.

Had Mr. Steinberg not walked off the Schaefer reservation this time last year, he might be the point man on the tax and spending issue, pow-wowing with legislative leaders and horse-trading his way to a consensus that both raises new revenues and cuts existing programs.

Instead, Mr. Steinberg turned his back on what he viewed as a lost cause (the Linowes commission tax-hike plan) and earned the permanent wrath of the governor. Mr. Schaefer called him a traitor and has ignored him ever since.

This has made life difficult for Mr. Steinberg, but he has managed to survive and to focus most of his energies on his personal political ambitions. The real damage from the Schaefer snub, ironically, has been to the governor himself. The collapse of the Schaefer administration can be traced back to the day that Mickey Steinberg dropped off the Linowes team and Mr. Schaefer decided to make him pay for it.

In the first Schaefer term, Mr. Steinberg rightfully gained much of the credit for the governor's sweeping legislative successes. Since then, the governor's Steinberg-less team has floundered.

The 1991 General Assembly session was a disaster. So far, 1992 looks just as bad. The governor's State of the State address, with its call for $700 million in new taxes, already is viewed as irrelevant. House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and Senate Budget Chairman Laurence Levitan are in charge, not the governor.

When the governor called for a reformulation of the local piggyback income tax to assist Baltimore City, it was immediately denounced by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. Comptroller Louis Goldstein waited a little longer -- until the next day -- but then sealed the fate of this proposal by blasting it out of the water.

None of this would have happened were Mr. Steinberg still running the Schaefer operation. As a skilled veteran of the Annapolis scene, he never would have proposed a tax plan without first mollifying the wily Mr. Goldstein, who knows how to manipulate the levers of power after 34 years in office and who gets quite possessive about such matters as tax collections.

Nor would Mr. Steinberg have permitted the governor to announce before a statewide television audience a $700 million tax program without first enrolling Mr. Miller and Mr. Mitchell in the plan. Instead, the proposals caught them by surprise.

That's why the Schaefer plan was dead in the water before aides had time to put details on paper. Assembly leaders are fashioning their own approach instead that probably won't be to the governor's liking, but which he may be powerless to change. The legislature, not the governor, is making the key decisions.

It is humiliating for the governor and his staff. He has the title of chief executive, but power has shifted to Mr. Mitchell and his colleagues. The governor continues to make elemental mistakes in dealing with both the legislature and other power centers. Even after five years as governor, he seems ill suited for the job.

Where has Mr. Steinberg been during these events? The governor stripped him of all meaningful duties. He's not allowed to make a contribution. That's his punishment for defying Don Schaefer: "Mickey, go stand in the corner and face the wall till your term is up in 1994."

But Mr. Steinberg, ever the crafty politician, has turned this situation to his advantage. Being No. 1 on Don Schaefer's enemies list makes the lieutenant governor a hero in the eyes of many Marylanders.

He's got so many speaking invitations he can't keep up with them. The more vindictive Mr. Schaefer gets, the more popular it makes his estranged lieutenant governor. Even some of Mr. Schaefer's financial backers are quietly lining up with Mr. Steinberg in preparation for the 1994 gubernatorial election.

Still, Governor Schaefer refuses to relent. Even after seeing his latest tax plan junked within minutes of its announcement, even after seeing the legislature seize control of the budget, Mr. Schaefer won't rehabilitate Mr. Steinberg. Recently, a legislator dared to suggest to the governor that Mr. Steinberg might be the perfect person to bridge the yawning gap between the executive and legislature. Mr. Schaefer erupted: He wouldn't hear of it.

So while Mr. Steinberg positions himself to run for governor from the brig of the S.S. Schaefer, the ship of state continues to take on water in heavy seas. Mr. Schaefer continues to stumble and look foolish. Legislators continue to express frustration over the lack of effective executive leadership. And Maryland continues to bounce from crisis to crisis with no one at the helm.

You can blame it all on Mickey.

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