Steinberg vows to make session a campaign tool

January 10, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Staff Writer

Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, a restless noncombatant for the past two meetings of the Maryland General Assembly, intends to use the annual 90-day legislative session that begins Wednesday to vigorously promote issues central to his gubernatorial campaign.

"I have made a decision to use the legislative session as a forum to speak out on some issues that I feel very strongly about," the lieutenant governor said last week. "I intend to be very aggressive."

Mr. Steinberg insisted that his election-year status as a candidate for governor gives him both the license and the obligation to demonstrate to legislators and voters alike the caliber of leadership they can expect from him.

"A lot of people talk about change," he said. "Mickey Steinberg has the track record and the ability to implement that change, and I want people to know in advance what I'm talking about, not just buy a pig in a poke."

He said he would not be deterred by charges of grandstanding and political posturing, asserting that politics and meaningful legislation go together.

"Politics is not a dirty word," he said.

Mr. Steinberg, elected twice as Gov. William Donald Schaefer's running mate, has been estranged from the chief executive since the two men split over a major tax package during the 1991 legislative session.

In the aftermath, the governor cut back Mr. Steinberg's staff, leaving him with a skeleton crew of three aides, and virtually eliminated his role as the administration's chief legislative strategist and lobbyist, sentencing him to the political equivalent of Siberia.

Now, it seems, he's coming in from the cold, whether his gubernatorial rivals or Mr. Schaefer like it or not.

"It's a new ballgame," said Mr. Steinberg. "I am a player."

He said he plans to use the session to publicize key planks in the campaign platform he is scheduled to unveil today by supporting and perhaps even generating legislation that addresses issues of his campaign -- notably crime, education and jobs.

"I see this session as a real opportunity to focus on burning issues that we as a society have to address," he said. "I am prepared to speak out candidly on every issue involving public safety, education and economic development and to get them enacted as soon as possible."

He said he intends to testify at committee hearings on behalf of bills he favors -- even those sponsored by political rivals -- and otherwise attempt to demonstrate his legislative savvy and political clout by helping to power them through the General Assembly.

In the event no measures are to his liking, he said, he will draft his own bills and recruit friendly legislators as sponsors. Only senators and delegates can introduce legislation.

Drumming up support

Sources close to the lieutenant governor said he also intends to use the session to continue drumming up support among members of the Senate and House of Delegates, many of whom he served with during his two decades in the legislature before he was elected to the state's second highest office in 1986.

Punctuating the importance he attaches to the coming session, Mr. Steinberg will officially kick off his campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination today and tomorrow with a series of events aimed at grabbing the attention of legislators as they gather in Annapolis.

To dramatize his commitment to public safety, which he called the No. 1 issue in Maryland, the first stop on his announcement tour is to be the West Baltimore street corner where his uncle, Israel Steinberg, was murdered in 1968.

The lieutenant governor's desire to make himself a focus of attention during the legislative session comes against a backdrop of the previous two sessions when, in the eyes of many observers, he was largely irrelevant to the action.

"Mickey has been like a man without a country," said Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the House of Delegates minority leader and a candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Said state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski of East Baltimore, a rival for the Democratic nomination, "He was not a player at the sessions. I can't think of anything he did."

The third state legislator running for governor, Democratic Sen. Mary H. Boergers of Montgomery County, said that if Mr. Steinberg is too visible at the session it may invite an uncomfortable question: "Where's he been for the past three years?"

Though his opponents have political reasons to disparage Mr. Steinberg's activities in recent years, their views are in accord with a widespread view of the lieutenant governor's role after his well-publicized split with Governor Schaefer.

Mr. Steinberg conceded that his visibility was reduced in the previous two sessions, but said he was in no position in those days to present his own agenda because it would have been viewed by legislators and the public as "just going to battle with the governor."

Steinberg supporters further insist that Mr. Steinberg was active during the 1992 and 1993 sessions, but his efforts either escaped the notice of the press, or were ignored, because his rift with the governor deprived him of his previously central role in the legislative action.

Mr. Steinberg's decision to take an active role in the legislative session is not without risks. Aside from the predictable charge of grandstanding, he must show that he has had a positive impact on the fate of any bills he champions.

"They don't have to pass, not necessarily, but they can't go down in crashing flames," said a source close to the lieutenant governor.

If he can use it to his advantage, the legislative session is coming at the right time for Mr. Steinberg.

His campaign had been treading water for weeks while undergoing an organizational reshuffling completed last week with the installation of political strategists Michael F. Ford as campaign chairman and Kevin Mack as day-to-day campaign manager.

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