Steinberg moves to regain control of political life


June 21, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Melvin A. "Mickey" Steinberg, who wishes to work for a living instead of merely being the un-lieutenant governor of Maryland, took a large step toward formal employment the other night at a testimonial that brought him about $400,000.

And just in time, too, since the 1994 election for governor arrives in just 863 days.

Already I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: Who cares?

You're thinking: With trouble in the land -- that is, with Cal Ripken unsigned, and with Bill Clinton and Sister Souljah exchanging off-key notes, and with Dan Quayle flunking remedial spelling -- why are you hocking us about an election 2 1/2 years off?

And you're thinking: In a nation where the No. 2 man in Washington is now being called Mr. "Potatoe" Head, how bright does the No. 2 man in Maryland have to be?

Mickey Steinberg wonders the same thing. Everybody in Annapolis, except one person, calls him the savviest guy in state government. But the one person disagreeing is the boss of all bosses, William Donald Schaefer, and he has frozen Steinberg out of the running of government.

This is why, with little else to do at this time of his life, when he's too young for retirement and too old to punch Schaefer in the nose, Steinberg held this lovely affair Thursday night at the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel and told everybody, "This washes away a lot of frustrations."

It was the closest he came to stating the obvious: Steinberg cannot wait to run for governor, because life as the un-lieutenant governor is like no life at all. His job, a constitutional afterthought, is largely dependent on the whims of the governor. And this governor has declared Steinberg an un-person. So Thursday's testimonial, billed as a tribute to his 25 years in government, had the feel of a man taking control of his own life.

"So much hugging and kissing," Steinberg exulted, as he greeted a line of guests, "and I can get away with it. Somebody stand here. When my wife sees me with strange pretty women, I gotta have a witness."

His is a political personality that's been held hostage. It's equal parts Hubert Humphrey and a guy working the carryout counter at a deli.

"Look at this," Steinberg told a guest, pointing to one in a series of old black-and-white snapshots that had been blown up and placed about the big Stouffer's ballroom. "Look at that sportscoat I'm wearing. God, I wouldn't buy a used car from me."

"Great food tonight," a guest said.

"I don't know," Steinberg joked. "I wanted to have Chinese, but at these prices, people wanted something classier."

At these prices, Steinberg said, he raised more than $400,000, "about double what we expected. It's an unbelievable figure. You would never set a goal like that for a function like this, especially not in these tough economic times."

The money does a few things: In the tradition of Marvin Mandel and Schaefer himself, the early strike not only intimidates other potential opponents but freezes money that might have gone elsewhere. Already, Parris N. Glendening, the Prince George's County executive, and J. Joseph Curran Jr., the attorney general of Maryland, are making their own plans for a gubernatorial run.

"Glendening is pretty attractive," City Councilman Carl Stokes said Thursday night, munching on some Steinbergian hors d'oeuvres but keeping his endorsement options open. "Although, let's face it, people around here don't even know who he is."

And Curran?

"Joe's a great guy," said Baltimore Del. Paul Weisengoff. "There's not a nicer man in the world. He ought to be a priest. But what's he done as attorney general? He's made enemies. The gun people, the anti-abortion people, the off-track betting people. And he had no need to make those enemies."

Steinberg has always prided himself on the avoidance of enemies. He's a conciliator, a coddler, a mollifier. To know him is to feel comfortable. Unless you're the governor of Maryland, who decided Steinberg wasn't sufficiently loyal.

"We were such a great team the first four years," a wistful-sounding Steinberg was saying, the morning after his fund-raiser. "We had the strengths of our differences. You know, I've been married 34 years. My wife's a very independent-thinking person. Sometimes we disagree. But we resolve these things.

"If my governor takes a position I feel is wrong, I do him a disservice if I just say, 'Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.' So now we're in this condition, which makes everyone uncomfortable. Confrontation doesn't do anybody any good. Reconciliation does."

Still, some call Schaefer's kiss of death a blessing to Steinberg. With the governor's popularity low, it gives him distance.

"I will not run an anti-Schaefer campaign," Steinberg says. "I respect the governor. It's been quite some time since we talked, but I'd still like to reconcile things. If somebody has to take the first step, I'll take it."

In the meantime, he's taken a pretty good step to becoming the next governor. He's spent enough time as the un-lieutenant governor.

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