Schaefer and Steinberg: no fire, just ice

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 09, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ANNAPOLIS -- One day, a funny thing happened to William Donald Schaefer and Melvin ''Mickey'' Steinberg.

They said hello.

''Good morning, governor,'' said Steinberg, as the two men accidentally passed each other in a State House hallway.

''Hello, Mickey,'' said Schaefer.

In the ever-deteriorating relationship between the two top officials of the state of Maryland, this is what is known in the trade as a full conversation. Each continued on his way without further words. And neither expects any further dialogue in the foreseeable future.

The state wrestles with its worst financial troubles in memory, and Mickey Steinberg is the man without a platform. Once, he'd have been a healer, a maker of deals, a conciliator of clashing opinions.

Now, he can't get his own boss to acknowledge his existence. The governor calls it a question of loyalty. The lieutenant governor calls it a question of ego, increasingly fed by the loyalists who surround Schaefer and point out any slights, real or imagined.

But the bottom line is this: Steinberg, one of the two or three savviest politicians around here, has been cut off from any official role he might have played as the state struggles through its winter of discontent.

''Frustrated?'' Steinberg said at week's end. ''Nah, the correct adjective would be saddened. Listen, Mickey Steinberg isn't important, and Don Schaefer isn't important. It's that we're the governor and lieutenant governor, and we're not supposed to let personal feelings get in the way of our constitutional duties.''

Schaefer's people blame the political divorce on last year's Linowes commission plan to revise the state tax structure and increase tax revenues by about $800 million.

Steinberg refused to get behind it. Schaefer considered this an act of disloyalty. If the governor wanted it, then the rest of his team was supposed to work for it.

''That's not the truth,'' Steinberg says. ''That's not the thing that divided us. Look, I was very fortunate in the first four years with the governor. He delegated a lot of things to me, and we had an outstanding legislative agenda. I got a lot of publicity, a lot of credit. In fact, an embarrassing amount.

''In the early days, he would beam and feel pride. But there are people around him who think light should only shine on the governor. I told him, I'm a victim of my own success.''

After the 1990 session, Steinberg says, ''Schaefer told me, 'The legislature gives you everything, they give me nothing.' I said, 'Governor, I work for you. I don't work for the governor of Delaware or New Jersey. My success is your success.'

''A couple of days after the '90 session, he told me, 'I heard you after the session. You walked into that chamber and they applauded you and you sat on the rostrum for half an hour.' I said, 'I'm their former president. They know me for 20 years.' ''

Meanwhile, the governor's popularity continues to slide. According to a Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research poll, only one of five Marylanders -- 20 percent -- approves of the governor. That's a two-year drop from 68 percent approval in January 1990.

Nobody in the governor's office is shocked by the figures.

In tough economic times, the governor automatically gets blamed. And this particular governor has caught flak for his high-profile spending policies, which were preceded by some high-profile personal idiosyncrasies.

''To me,'' Steinberg says, ''one of the most disappointing aspects of these economic troubles is everyone saying we have two choices: increase taxes or cut programs. That's not the problem. And the recession isn't the problem.

''Nobody's giving attention to why our expenses have skyrocketed and our revenues haven't covered them. You don't have to be Einstein to see, in the last decade, the growth in social problems like 20,000 people in jail and all the tangential costs, the broken homes, the higher welfare, at the same time there's been this loss of federal moneys.

''We haven't made up our mind,'' Steinberg says, ''just what is the role of government? Are we involved in too many things? Have we gotten involved in so many things that we're overlooking the important ones, such as education? These are the questions we're not addressing.''

And, whatever questions Steinberg wants to address, the governor doesn't want to hear.

He's been frozen out of the action, to the point where he figures there's an attempt to get him to resign from office.

''Deep down, this is only a gut feeling I have, but I think there's a desire to make me frustrated and quit. They know I don't depend on this job for a living. I'm an attorney, I could go out and make a living.

''But, as long as the Lord gives me good health, I'll be here till the end. If something happened to the governor, I'd kick myself for the rest of my life.''

Final irony: Schaefer wants to run for mayor of Baltimore in three years. Steinberg wants to run for governor in two years.

What if they both win? Wouldn't it be interesting to see the future mayor of Baltimore come asking the future governor of Maryland for a little help?

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