The primary's secondary purpose

Frank A. DeFilippo

March 05, 1992|By Frank A. DeFilippo

IN CASE anyone had any doubt, the Maryland presidential primary elections demonstrated once again that all politics are local.

Beyond the presidential candidates themselves, their issues, consultants, spin doctors and campaign groupies loom the loyal foot soldiers of any campaign -- the local bosses, bosslets and precinct organizations.

At their loftiest, presidential primaries are celebrations of democracy in action. But more to the point, the bi-elections are important conditioning exercises for precinct organizations and mid-level political apparatchiks as well as those seeking political advancement.

The frequency of elections helps keep political organizations intact, and in the power pyramid of politics every election is a downpayment on the next election.

In less than three years, Maryland will be nominating candidates for governor and other local offices. As much as anything else, Tuesday's presidential primary was a warm-up for 1994 and a rallying point for the organizations of several prospective candidates.

Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska virtually thumbed his nose at Maryland, and his minuscule vote showed it. Yet the organization of Atty. Gen. Joseph J. Curran Jr. backed Mr. Kerrey with its full might, not so much because Mr. Curran's son-in-law, City Councilman Martin O'Malley, was Mr. Kerrey's Maryland campaign manager, but because Mr. Kerrey was viewed as a marketable commodity in Northeast Baltimore. Mr. Curran is on the short list of candidates for governor in 1994.

In the numbers game of endorsements, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was the big winner. But his more than 100 endorsements from Maryland elected officials failed to lift him beyond second place, with a respectable but less than spectacular 33 percent of the vote in a kind of city vs. suburbs race with the Maryland Democratic winner, former Sen. Paul Tsongas.

By far, the brass ring for Mr. Clinton was the endorsement of Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who wants to keep his organization a lean, mean fighting machine for future elections (whatever they may be). Mr. Clinton always has done well among black voters. But with the absence of a black presidential candidate and despite all of the mayoral bluster, whatever Schmoke organization there is saved the mayor from embarrassment.

In Northwest Baltimore's 42nd District, Sen. Barbara Hoffman and Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg exercised their troops in Mr. Clinton's behalf, as did the old-line organizations in South and East Baltimore. But a cross-current developed in East Baltimore, where the Greek-American community broke from the organization's ranks to support a countryman, Mr. Tsongas, over Mr. Clinton.

The big catch for Mr. Tsongas was Governor Schaefer. Mr. Schaefer earlier had been inclined to support his fellow governor, Mr. Clinton. But he eased over to Mr. Tsongas, he said, because of that candidate's policies toward cities. Mr. Schaefer is talking about running for mayor in 1995.

Whatever political cachet Mr. Schaefer has left, he lost his beloved city to Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Clinton but still came up with a statewide winner mainly because of a huge suburban vote for Mr. Tsongas. The Maryland win added a second dimension to Mr. Tsongas. He can now claim he's a national candidate.

The campaign of Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa was largely the invention of City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and the NDC-2 political club she heads. Yet despite the activism of the club and the personal vote-pulling power of Ms. Clarke, Mr. Harkin collected only 6 percent of the vote and no delegates because he failed to cross the 15 percent threshold requirement.

Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg largely ignored presidential politics except to attend the College Park debate carried on public television Sunday. Rather than try to build his campaign for governor on the hopes of a presidential candidate, Mr. Steinberg has been quietly raising money for his 1994 run.

On the Republican side, President Bush had the backing of all of the state's Republican oligarchs, yet his upstart conservative challenger, Patrick Buchanan, still managed to collect 30 percent of the party's vote -- much of it clearly anti-Bush. Mr. Bush's loudest cheerleader is Rep. Helen Bentley, and the buzz is that Mrs. Bentley would like to run for governor in 1994.

Mr. Buchanan ignored Maryland, making only one brief courtesy call to Mr. Bush's three visits in two weeks and live phone interviews with Baltimore's three major TV stations election eve.

So whenever an expensive ad appears on TV, it's there to reassure local supporters as much as to sell the candidate. In the end, presidential candidates come in handy for local political purposes.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on Maryland politics.

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