Governor '94 I: Physician or Poltical Opportunist?


June 06, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Is Maryland ready for a Perot-style candidate? We may find out. A new name has surfaced in the 1994 gubernatorial sweepstakes, one that is different enough to grab voters' attention: Dr. Neil Solomon.

Yes, this is the Neil Solomon who served as this state's first - and most controversial -- secretary of health and mental hygiene; who has written a string of best-selling health books; who's a veteran of the TV talk-show circuit; whose syndicated column is a newspaper staple; and who has resurfaced as chairman of the governor's commission on drug abuse, alcoholism and AIDS.

Now he is considering a political career. He says friends came to him urging a run for governor. He told them he'd only do it if he were convinced there was a groundswell of support and enough money could be raised. The upshot: formation of an exploratory group, "Friends of Neil Solomon Committee."

He could run as an independent (to by-pass the primaries), a Democrat or even as a Republican. But so far, Dr. Solomon's attention has been directed at the Democrats.

That came through strongly in a recent exchange of letters with state Del. Richard Rynd, a longtime ally of gubernatorial hopeful Lt. Gov. Melvin A. "Mickey" Steinberg.

In his "Dear Neil" letter, Mr. Rynd accused Dr. Solomon of having talked with Gov. William Donald Schaefer frequently about running for governor -- though that apparently never happened.

"I can understand why the governor would want you in the race," Mr. Rynd wrote.

"He probably believes that your entrance in the race will hurt Mickey. . . . I can't understand why you would want to hurt Mickey. You are a physician -- not a political opportunist. We who know you, expect more from you. The governor's problems with Mickey should not become yours."

Then came the lines that lit the fuse: "Everyone who is 'in the know' -- knows why you might be getting involved and who is asking you to do so. Just remember, when you are in politics, sometimes it gets mighty hot in the kitchen."

A Solomon campaign could split the Jewish vote in Northwest Baltimore County -- Mr. Steinberg's key base of support. So there is good reason for Mr. Rynd to try to keep Dr. Solomon out of the race.

But is he a "political opportunist"? No more so than anyone who decides to get into politics. And accusing Dr. Solomon of fronting for Governor Schaefer would carry more weight if Mr. Rynd had the facts on his side.

This letter inspired a "Dear Richard" response from Dr. Solomon:

"Your letter is a throwback to the days of political bossism . . . a time when the power of political muscle, and not the power of ideas, shaped our government."

Dr. Solomon said he had been approached to run by ordinary people, "not the people that you or the number of career politicians currently casting about for such a candidacy would approach for support."

People, he said, want "a break from the same old politicians who've been talking about change for the last decade while doing very little." Citizens have developed "a frustration and anger rooted in the belief that politicians always placed their private political agenda ahead of the public good."

He tore into the top four contenders: Mr. Steinberg, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran.

"Are the problems which our state faces so manageable and the job so unimportant that the lieutenant governor has nothing better to do than concern himself with his gubernatorial positioning?"

"Have the living conditions of the children of inner-city Baltimore improved so dramatically that the mayor can start touring the state seeking support for a gubernatorial bid?"

"Do the folks of Prince George's County truly believe that they elected a part-time public servant and part-time political fund-raiser when they elected their county executive?"

"Has the crime and drug problem in the state of Maryland been so vigorously prosecuted that the attorney general now has the luxury of raising money and commissioning political polls in the quest for higher office?"

Then came the clincher: "Unlike you, the voices I listen to in deciding whether to run for governor won't come from the political insiders who for so long have been cutting themselves in while cutting the rest of us out. This may surprise you, but I'm going to take my cue from a far more sensible source -- the people."

Shades of Ross Perot? You bet. A Solomon campaign would focus on reforming government and on health issues. He'd run as a non-politician and an outsider with prior government experience and a reputation for tackling controversial issues.

Yes, it would be Quixotic. But the public mood remains testy. There is no clear front-runner. And Marylanders have a history of pulling surprises: They elected little-known Harry Hughes as governor 15 years ago; they nominated perennial outsider George P. Mahoney 27 years ago over well-known Democrats -- and then deserted him for an obscure Republican, Spiro T. Agnew.

Will lightning strike again? Maryland politics is in such flux that anything is possible -- even a winning Solomon campaign for governor.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director for The Sun. His column on Maryland politics appears here each week.

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