Golly, governor, we can't laugh at you anymore

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 12, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Rick Kollinger's governor is a pretty funny guy, if you get past the truth: All jokes about William Donald Schaefer are now considered yesterday's news.

Kollinger's cartoon governor stars in a 1993 calendar, looking a little drawn, shall we say. In January, the cartoon Schaefer throws a big Super Bowl party, complete with a Spam sculpture of himself, and invites all his friends and supporters in the legislature. Nobody shows up.

In February, he introduces a new lottery game where the winner picks the correct date and time the deficit will reach $1 trillion. In June, Lt. Gov. Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg's picture appears on milk cartons.

Yesterday morning, Steinberg wasn't exactly smiling over the missing-person inference. Nor was Rick Kollinger chuckling about his calendar. The 1993 session of the Maryland General Assembly opens tomorrow, and neither Schaefer nor Steinberg nor the condition of this state is considered very funny these days.

Kollinger is currently finding this out. His second annual Schaefer calendar is running about 25 percent below last year's sales figures, a condition owing to "the lack of novelty" about Schaefer jokes, Kollinger guesses, and maybe the lack of humor in a state where the economy's in tatters and the governor's been known to throw tantrums.

Among the victims is Steinberg, officially the No. 2 man in the state but unofficially ostracized by Schaefer. Recently, Kollinger drew a cartoon for his hometown Easton Star-Democrat, where three people emerge from a wooded area into a clearing: Elvis, Amelia Earhart and Mickey Steinberg.

Yesterday morning, told that Steinberg is on one telephone line, Kollinger, on the other line, declared: "He's been found?"

At this, Steinberg did not laugh. He said he was busier than ever, said he was working constantly with legislators, said he was fulfilling his sworn obligation to the people of Maryland. This is not a normal Mickey Steinberg response. Normally, he tosses a joke, usually self-deprecating, and lets his record speak for itself. This guy knows the machinations of state government as well as anybody but, in his Schaefer-imposed exile, he finds it necessary to justify his existence.

"This estrangement," Steinberg said yesterday, searching for the correct diplomatic term, "has made me busier than ever. I'm invited all over. People want to know what's going on, and they can't get to the governor.

"Listen, I'm no different than [state Senate President] Mike Miller. You think the governor talks to him? I'm not the only person who's got a problem. There are legislators who are actually supportive of Schaefer, but even they can't get past the palace guard. At least I still talk to the General Assembly."

On the day before the 1993 session opens, this is not thrilling talk. The state struggles to slough off its long trail of red ink and finds itself turning increasingly to legalized gambling as salvation.

In Rick Kollinger's calendar, state gambling is a running gag. But its closeness to reality makes the joke a little uncomfortable. In Mickey Steinberg's mind, it's gone too far.

"We have a major dependency on gambling that people don't understand," he said. "Next year, we're putting $100 million into the state budget in expected revenues. What happens if $100 million doesn't come in? We've built in a deficit right at the start.

"And yet, maybe it's good news if we don't get the $100 million. Because where's the money coming from but the pockets of individuals, and we're ending up with all kinds of social problems out of that."

When the No. 2 man in the state disparages the No. 1 man in the state, it's an indication of tension in high places. Schaefer stiffs Steinberg. The state stiffs Schaefer.

Once, people made jokes about such things, but now there's a sad overlay. Even Rick Kollinger feels it when he's cartooning.

"Actually," he says, "I kind of like Schaefer. He's a big-government guy who wants to build, but doesn't have any money. It's got to be extremely frustrating. And he knows all these people don't like him."

Some of the unpopularity, Schaefer's brought on himself. Some of it's just a wave that's taken on a life of its own. In either case, the General Assembly opens tomorrow, and nobody knows what to expect out of this governor.

We used to find this amusing, but not any more.

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