4 who would be governor

Frank A. DeFilippo

June 10, 1993|By Frank A. DeFilippo

MARYLAND has four Democrats running for governor: on who can think, one who can talk, one who can act and another who's as warm and cuddly as the velveteen Barney.

But the gods bumbled when they gave out talents. They didn't have Maryland in mind or they'd have rolled all four into one. Combined, they'd make a terrific candidate. Separately, they wear the smudges of politics like so many scarlet letters.

Meet Parris Glendening, Ph.D., Prince George's county executive, a former University of Maryland academic who decided he could accomplish more in the county seat than in a college classroom. And say hello to Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who's long on promise but a mile short on delivery.

Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg is living proof of the adage that whom the gods would destroy they first make lieutenant governor. Finally, there's J. Joseph Curran Jr., attorney general, the amiable Irishman who could charm the birds out of the trees the way St. Francis did.

So Democrats aren't really being offered a choice of governors. If the foursome plays out, the primary will be more like an electronic game show. The voters are being asked to decide if the times demand a philosopher king, the state's first black governor, the consummate insider or a consumer advocate with a record of gutsy positions.

The composite looks great -- a black candidate with a Ph.D. who knows his way around the back alleys of politics and who believes in giving power to the people. But pick it apart and it tells a different story of liability politics.

Begin with Mr. Steinberg, an outcast in his own administration. FTC As the lieutenant governor under virtual house arrest, Mr. Steinberg carries into the campaign both the successes and the excesses of the Schaefer administration.

He's entitled to credit for ramrodding such big-ticket items as the new ballyard and light rail. But Mr. Steinberg can't very well brag about those successes in Montgomery or Prince George's counties, where anti-city sentiment runs high. If he does, the good burghers will send him packing. Mr. Schaefer and his nomenclators also won't forgive Mr. Steinberg for his opposition last year to the Linowes tax program. After eight bodacious years of the Schaefer administration and three years of hard times, who's to say Mr. Steinberg won't be bum-rapped as part of the problem?

Comes now Mr. Schmoke. The arithmetic says that in a four-way race Mr. Schmoke can win. He needs only 25 percent of the vote in a state that's 25 percent black. (Mr. Schmoke's handlers have been approaching high-rollers with polls showing their man with a big lead.) But despite his good intentions, many of Mr. Schmoke actions are regarded as those of a political dilettante.

He's promulgated a residency requirement for city employees that has miffed surrounding counties. He's pushed for a study of drug decriminalization and a free needle exchange program that created an impression that he's soft on drugs. He'd like to sue the state for more education money, an act that would alienate the wealthy suburbs. He's conducted his own "ethnic cleansing" program in city government. And finally, Mr. Schmoke's under a cloud of suspicion while a grand jury investigates charges that city law enforcement agencies have been soft on drug kingpins. Besides, who wants another Baltimore mayor manning the state's cash register?

Mr. Glendening desperately needs a Baltimore connection. He's virtually unknown outside of his own suburban Washington territory. To that end, he's searching for a Baltimore running mate, and the street talk has it that he's already met with Mr.

Schmoke, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and state school Superintendent Nancy Grasmick.

Mr. Glendening's also had financial success in his own backyard. At a recent fundraiser in Montgomery County, he raised $170,000 to add to a campaign bank account that had already showed deposits of more than $400,000. And he's in good standing among his black constituents, who constitute a tad more than 50 percent of the Prince George's population. Nonetheless, Mr. Glendening's still the invisible man of the 1994 campaign.

Mr. Curran's liability is his hard-liner pro-consumer positions that have angered not only Mr. Schaefer but the state's business community as well. Those positions, widely viewed among business people as anti-business, could cost Mr. Curran a share of the big money that's pumped into campaigns by Maryland's captains of industry. Over the years, too, Mr. Curran's taken other positions that could help or hurt him.

In 1968 as a candidate for Congress, the only election he ever lost, Mr. Curran ran as an anti-Vietnam War candidate before it was fashionable. He's a Roman Catholic who's pro-choice, and he was among the first elected officials in Maryland to speak out in favor of a handgun control law. So in a sense, depending on the mood of the electorate, Mr. Curran's apparent downside could be his upside.

Finally, a couple of footnotes to 1994: Neil Solomon, M.D., Ph.D., medical adviser to the stars, is testing waters as a Ross Perot look-alike. Like his role model, Mr. Schaefer -- the first thing patients spot in the doctor's Towson waiting room is a framed picture of the doc and the governor -- Mr. Solomon's not sure if he's a Democrat, a Republican or an independent. Nor is Sen. Mary H. Boergers, D-Montgomery, who's been raising money for a run for governor, yet a prime-time player.

Mr. Schmoke's really the key to the equation. If he runs, keep an eye on the numbers. But if events cause him to decide against the big show, the competition for governor next year will assume a different set of dynamics.

If we did have a single candidate who could think, talk, act and be warm and fuzzy, consider what a dull election it'd be. Be grateful.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes on alternate Thursdays about Maryland politics.

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