Mickey declares, but what's he got to say for himself?

January 11, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Now that Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg, Maryland's lieutenant governor-in-exile, has affirmed his plans to run for governor, everybody can't wait to find out who he's running against: those who are specifically running against him, or William Donald Schaefer.

Steinberg officially announced his candidacy yesterday to a virtual cannonade of indifference. What's the big deal? He's been around forever. He's the No. 2 man in state government, in name if not in reality, and he's openly (though unofficially) campaigned for governor for a couple of years now.

But how will he run? Schaefer, the man who ostracized him, is a convenient target, but the governor's about to become yesterday's business. Tomorrow in Annapolis, the state legislature opens, with Schaefer presiding over his final session. Steinberg says he'll be there to make a difference over the next 90 days. He says he'll speak his mind. It's about time.

Some have asked: Why did he continue taking a state paycheck for money he wasn't earning? Why didn't he make the grand gesture and resign, once it was clear Schaefer had frozen him out of his job?

Steinberg naturally takes the other view, giving himself points for sticking it out, for remaining lieutenant governor in name -- "because the people elected me to the office," he's explained repeatedly -- even though it was an empty position.

Here's a bigger problem he's facing: For all his racing about the state over the past year to schmooze with local pols, and for all the good cheer, all the funny stories, all the talk about Mickey Steinberg understanding the process of state government as almost no one else understands it, almost nobody can point to a thing he's said about life in Maryland that gives us a fix on precisely what he wants to do.

Now is his chance. To a lot of people watching Steinberg, his campaign ran out of gas before it turned on the ignition. The politicians talk about pacing, about not wanting to give away too much too soon, about not peaking too early.

But that's not the problem. Steinberg needs to tell us where he stands on things that matter -- and he hit on some of those yesterday. He said he would abolish parole for violent offenders, get tougher on juveniles, toughen handgun laws.

He delivered his message in West Baltimore, where his uncle, Israel Steinberg, was murdered a quarter-century ago. The visit was both a tender family gesture, a sign that his uncle hasn't been forgotten, as well as a general reminder: All the talk about dangerous streets has improved virtually nothing over the past 25 years. Much of West Baltimore is far more dangerous than it was in 1968, and infinitely more depressing.

Not far from Steinberg's announcement yesterday, you could drive along Carey Street, for example, and see block after block of boarded-up rowhouses, of trash lying along sidewalks and streets, and grown men standing aimlessly in the cold. A young woman swept a broom along a sidewalk, but it seemed a futile gesture against the overwhelming decay all around her.

No one, in Steinberg's time and beyond, has been able to touch these problems. But more than any other candidate, he's been around long enough to think about them. It's time for him to tell us what he's discovered.

Same thing with the schools: In Steinberg's time, the schools have turned out a generation of illiterates. Yesterday, he said the schools would be a top priority. But what does that mean? Schaefer, when he was mayor of Baltimore, talked the same language about schools, but saw them decline anyway. Money can't cure everything. What, specifically, does Steinberg have in mind? It's no longer enough simply to express grave concern and hope to win points for having a good heart.

Steinberg is great fun to be around. He's a spinner of stories, a teller of jokes and back-room anecdotes. But, since Schaefer cut him off at the knees a few years back over a dispute on taxes, he's ceased to matter politically to all but Steinberg.

Last night, American Joe Miedusiewski had another big fund-raiser in East Baltimore. Parris Glendening comes here and finds people at City Hall eager to listen to him. And now Mickey Steinberg announces, yes, he's officially in the race. Unless it means he's ready to tell us things previously unspoken, he might have saved his breath.

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