Steinberg: confidence after missteps

November 07, 1993|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Staff Writer Staff writer Robert Timberg contributed to this article.

On a recent Western Maryland sweep to the Great Frederick Fair, Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg sat at a head table, waiting to be introduced to a lunchtime gathering of political and business leaders friendly to his 1994 gubernatorial bid.

Del. James E. "Doc" McClellan, a longtime county pol and fair director, welcomed the guest of honor, telling the group that "Mickey" Steinberg would be speaking to them on the duties of the lieutenant governor.

"And that shouldn't take long," Mr. McClellan said.

Amid nervous laughter, the entire room seemed to cringe collectively at what was intended to be a good-natured jab.

Mr. McClellan had touched on one of the biggest hurdles Mr. Steinberg has to clear in his run for the State House: answering the question of what he does day today, now that Gov. William Donald Schaefer has frozen him into limbo after their public split in 1991 over the governor's plan to raise $800 million in new taxes.

It is a question that Mr. Steinberg knows will hang over him in the coming 10 months before the Democratic primary -- one that has prompted suggestions by some of his biggest supporters that he should have resigned before it could become a campaign issue.

They fear a backlash over his disloyalty to Mr. Schaefer, his two-time running mate, and perceptions that he has been using his office solely to run for governor.

Mr. Steinberg defends staying on by saying that he is kept busy with constituent services, being a governmental "watchdog" and fulfilling his constitutional duties as lieutenant governor.

Those duties -- which by law are set by the governor -- currently consist largely of sitting on several state advisory commissions.

A formidable task

An astute politician who began his career 27 years ago as a liberal reform candidate from Baltimore County, Mr. Steinberg, 60, now faces his biggest political high-wire act with this campaign -- balancing the position and prestige of lieutenant governor with the distance he needs to put between himself and Mr. Schaefer, whose popularity has plummeted in recent years.

Despite that, the former Maryland Senate president remains a strong candidate, an affable guy with a stand-up comic's sense of timing, a working knowledge of state government and tremendous support from many of his former colleagues in the General Assembly.

He crisscrosses the state, sounding early campaign themes of improving education, making streets safer and creating jobs, with specifics to come.

But in recent months, his closest supporters also have become concerned and frustrated with another problem -- the campaign's direction, or lack of it. They use words such as "flat" and "stalled" to characterize the effort.

They complain the campaign has not established a statewide organization, though it has hired Dennis C. Donaldson, a former Prince George's County delegate and Schaefer aide, to serve as liaison between Mr. Steinberg and other elected officials.

The campaign, they say, has missed opportunities to score points with Baltimore officials, and no one has managed to persuade Mr. Steinberg to modify his seemingly old-fashioned style of stumping.

"This is not a race for a safe state Senate seat from Pikesville," one person close to the campaign said.

Primary is his 'to lose'

The engine driving the Steinberg machine is sputtering, instead of humming, they say.

"The Democratic primary is the lieutenant governor's to lose," one supporter said.

"He was far ahead when the polls were taken last December, and I think most of the supporters would agree that he hasn't progressed as rapidly as they would have liked.

"He should have had an organization in place much prior to today's date in every county and in every city in the state," the supporter said. "Retail politics through speaking engagements might not be enough to cut it in 1994."

Mr. Steinberg bemoans the criticism, even though it is aimed at improving the campaign.

"Everybody's an expert," he said.

Looking for a manager

Until last week, Mr. Steinberg and his loyalists denied publicly, and among themselves, that anything was wrong, pointing to the success of recent fund-raisers in Baltimore City and Montgomery County that helped pump $1.1 million into the campaign with nearly a year to go.

"My campaign is really taking off," Mr. Steinberg said recently. "Everybody with me is volunteering. I'm running all over the HTC place."

Last week, however, signs of a shake-up began to surface.

Former Baltimore County Executive Theodore G. Venetoulis, an old friend, publisher and political commentator hired by Mr. Steinberg four months ago to "coordinate" the campaign, was said to be on his way out.

"I need a full-time person on the thing," Mr. Steinberg acknowledged Wednesday night.

"Right now, it appears Ted has other interests, and the thing is, I need a hands-on person," he said. "If he can't be that person, then I'll have to find someone else."

Joe Trippi, a principal in Trippi, McMahon & Squire, a national media consulting firm, went a step further.

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