Hot races for attorney general: a phenomenon tracing to Sachs

THE POLITICAL GAME

October 27, 1993|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Staff Writer

In November 1976, a former federal prosecutor named Stephen H. Sachs began a long, initially fitful trek through the Maryland political outback. When he came in from the cold two years later, he had dramatically altered the way the state elected its attorney general.

Before Mr. Sachs' maverick candidacy, few men of stature ran for attorney general, at least not at first. Instead they ran for governor. If their campaigns bogged down, they threw their support to a stronger rival, then accepted his offer to join the ticket as the attorney general candidate.

All that changed with Mr. Sachs' decision to seek the 1978 Democratic nomination for attorney general.

Starting his campaign two years early, he ridiculed the party's slate-making process, saying it turned the attorney general into "the french fries that go along with the Big Mac." People chuckled. Mr. Sachs was witty. Also, it seemed, a real long shot.

"Hey, folks, it wasn't my second choice, and it shouldn't be a consolation prize for someone who really wants to be governor," he insisted. "It was my first choice."

Audiences were small in the beginning. In March 1977, he went to a home in Anne Arundel County. He expected a crowd of 70. Besides the mortified host and hostess, there were two people to greet him, one a Republican.

Little more than a year later, he had pre-empted the field. He was still witty. By then he was also unbeatable. No one had seen him coming until it was too late. He won the primary and general elections going away and was re-elected easily in 1982.

The legacy endures

The brash, hard-charging candidate of the 1970s will be 60 in January. These days he is a successful attorney who is driven from his home in Baltimore to his downtown Washington law office. The voters decided in 1986 that he wasn't Big Mac material. He was soundly beaten that year by William Donald Schaefer in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. But his legacy endures.

These days, if you want to be attorney general, you run for attorney general, right from the start. Assuming, of course, that you don't already hold the post, as J. Joseph Curran Jr. has for the past seven years, in which case all bets are off.

Mr. Curran, who served one term as lieutenant governor under Harry Hughes, had an extended Big Mac attack that lasted until last month, when he announced that he had decided to forgo any gubernatorial aspirations and seek re-election next year.

A ready response

For the three candidates already in the race, Mr. Curran's announcement didn't exactly make their day. They know he is a formidable opponent. But, thanks to Mr. Sachs, they were ready with a response. Hey, folks, they shouted, this wasn't my second choice, this was my first choice. It ain't no consolation prize.

If Mr. Sachs' stunning 1978 campaign gave his putative successors the confidence to make an independent run for attorney general, he deprived them of an important tactical advantage that he enjoyed, the element of surprise. No one will ever sneak up on the political establishment again the way he did.

All three challengers in the 1994 field mirror aspects of Mr. Sachs' candidacy.

Eleanor M. Carey, one of two Democrats, is the most obvious legatee of the Sachs mantle. She was his campaign manager and alter ego in 1978, later his deputy attorney general. He's backing her.

In 1986, when Mr. Sachs ran for governor, Ms. Carey ran for attorney general, coming in a close third in a rough-and-tumble primary won by Mr. Curran. Since then she has been in private law practice in Baltimore and, for a time, legal affairs reporter on local television.

Patrick J. Smith, the other Democrat, inherits Mr. Sachs' long-shot label. Mr. Smith knows all about long shots. More than a year ago, he signed on to help ex-Sen. Paul E. Tsongas run for president. Mr. Tsongas was a long shot back then, too. Mr. Smith, a Rockville lawyer, ran Mr. Tsongas' primary election campaign in Maryland. Mr. Tsongas won here, then faded elsewhere.

But Mr. Smith noticed something gleaming through the post-campaign debris. Opportunity. The organization that he had put together for Mr. Tsongas, an organization built largely in the burgeoning suburban counties rimming Baltimore and

Washington, the Tsongas Belt as it has come to be known, was not necessarily a one-trick pony. Mr. Smith is now busy expanding it into the city of Baltimore and elsewhere in the state.

Richard D. Bennett, for now the lone Republican candidate, shares Mr. Sachs' prosecutorial roots. Both were U.S. attorneys for Maryland, Mr. Bennett relinquishing the job just a few months back. His reputation is as a crime fighter, but he is working to broaden his appeal, focusing, as are the others, on economic development and pledging a more aggressive review of non-bid state contracts.

None of Mr. Curran's challengers underestimates the job ahead, least of all Mr. Bennett. The last Republican elected attorney general was Alexander Armstrong in 1918.

At night, as Mr. Bennett heads home after a long day of campaigning, he has taken to saying to himself, "Good night, Mr. Armstrong, wherever you are." He might add, as might the others, Thanks, Steve.

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