Friendship and politics

Frank A. DeFilippo

August 19, 1993|By Frank A. DeFilippo

A LONG-TERM personal friendship that's soured and a failed business venture that led to bankruptcy and possible legal action are about to boil over into Maryland's campaign for governor.

Theodore G. Venetoulis and Lanny J. Davis were the best of friends even in the worst of times. Today they're bitter enemies as well as political rivals, proving once again that nothing comes between good friends like good money.

Mr. Venetoulis, the former Baltimore County executive and TV political analyst, signed on as campaign coordinator for Lt. Gov. Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg, who wants to be governor. Reacting with a predictable political twitch, Mr. Davis, a Washington lawyer and radio commentator, brashly declared "anybody but Steinberg" in his home county, Montgomery.

But Ted and Lanny used to be chums. Their friendship went back to the early '70s, when Mr. Venetoulis ran for executive of Baltimore County and won, and Mr. Davis ran for Congress in the 8th District and lost. They remained good buddies through the 1978 campaign for governor, when Mr. Venetoulis lost badly to Harry R. Hughes in the Democratic primary, although he did reasonably well in Montgomery with Mr. Davis's help.

And finally, their friendship was joined in a printing and newspaper publishing venture in Silver Spring in 1988 that recently ended in bank foreclosure and a Chapter 11 filing by Mr. Venetoulis. The assets of the company were auctioned off by Maryland National Bank for $560,000.

Mr. Davis is on note for $434,000, and another partner, Vicki L. Bagley, is on the line for $1.35 million. The two have threatened to sue Mr. Venetoulis on a variety of charges.

The rules of politics are the rules of the marketplace. The hard-knock battle began when Mr. Venetoulis, bankrupt and in debt, agreed to serve as Mr. Steinberg's paid campaign coordinator.

Responding in kind, Mr. Davis -- originally a sponsor of Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening -- appears to have shifted his attention to Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke.

First he wrote a smarmy article for The Sun declaiming the second coming of Mr. Schmoke in Montgomery County. Next, he hosted a reception at his Potomac home and paraded Mr. Schmoke before 45 elected officials from Montgomery. However, Davis neglected to inform Mr. Schmoke that he also invited most of the Washington area's press corps as well, and Mr. Schmoke came off as uninformed and ill-prepared.

Finally, Mr. Davis has been circulating the findings of polls conducted by Potomac Survey Research Inc., a polling firm in which he's a partner, which purport to show Mr. Schmoke as the front-runner in mannerly Montgomery.

Mr. Venetoulis, meanwhile, is said to be scrambling to salvage whatever assets he can while at the same time attempting to satisfy obligations to his former friends and partners.

Mr. Steinberg is said to have decided on hiring Mr. Venetoulis entirely on his own, bypassing the soundings of his steering committee, which usually validates campaign decisions.

Mr. Venetoulis has been barely visible in Mr. Steinberg's campaign. So far, he's opened a campaign headquarters in Owings Mills in Baltimore County. And he's hired a District of Columbia resident as Mr. Steinberg's campaign press secretary.

As if further proof were needed that politics is the last blood sport, the feud between Mr. Venetoulis and Mr. Davis bubbles on. Although many political rubberneckers scoff at Mr. Davis's -- bluster, Montgomery is nevertheless the county where Mr. Steinberg needs the most help. One survey shows Mr. Steinberg running dead last in Montgomery in a field of six.

There is some question, too, about Mr. Venetoulis's effectiveness after being out of touch with campaign politics for so many years. Also at issue is Mr. Venetoulis's awkward position as a former campaign manager for Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who has excommunicated his lieutenant governor, Mr. Steinberg.

So beyond the candidates and the issues in the 1994 campaign for governor, there's also the secondary grudge issue between two former chums who are now sworn enemies. And it's the candidates who may be stiff-armed because of it.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes every other Thursday on Maryland politics. For a year he edited the Montgomery County Business Record, one of three weekly newspapers published by the Davis/Venetoulis/Bagley partnership.

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