Steinberg's Gambit

January 12, 1994|By BRUCE L. BORTZ

Lt. Gov. Melvin (Mickey) Steinberg prompted one of the youngyear's biggest political laughs Monday. He ''announced'' his Democratic candidacy for governor. This is a man who's been running for the office for more than three years, while hiring (and firing) campaign strategists and staff people more often than we've had winter ice storms.

Mr. Steinberg's so-called ''declaration of candidacy'' was as much a non-story as if the state had called a press conference to announce that it would not close Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The real political news from the lieutenant governor came late last week, when he vowed to become a legislative player in the General Assembly session beginning today. He would take positions on important pieces of legislation. He would draft his own bills if need be. He thus set in motion what, in time, may come to be seen as a brilliant campaign strategy.

Mr. Steinberg had to do something. Three legislators running for governor will strut their stuff this legislative session -- the Democrats' Mary Boergers and American Joe Miedusiewski, and the Republicans' Ellen Sauerbrey. If Mr. Steinberg didn't find a way to make headlines during the 90-day legislative cocoon, he'd have become what he's been the past three sessions -- a virtual non-entity -- and the other three candidates would have had center stage all to themselves.

The strategy had more than defensive dimensions. By reassuming his 1987-90 role of legislative facilitator, the former Senate president gives his old friends in the legislature a chance to make him look gubernatorial. ''Pass the good bills I endorse and draft,'' he'll be telling them. ''Defeat the proposals I oppose. If you cooperate, I'll look like a doer, a leader, a governor! If you don't, and I become governor, I'll remember.''

Normally, it would be the actual governor who'd be taking the lead and making the threats. But in this, his last, legislative session, Mr. Schaefer's political clout has reached a nadir. Mr. Steinberg is taking advantage with a well-timed effort to make his legislative positions and package more important than the governor's. The tactic of playing de facto governor might work, if legislators believe, or fear, that Mr. Steinberg will survive the September primary and win election in November. Many don't expect that, but they haven't written the lieutenant governor off.

The Steinberg strategy seems likely to frustrate and infuriate a governor seeking one last successful legislative session. Mr. Schaefer certainly will do almost anything to keep himself -- and his legislative wish list -- from playing second fiddle to his lieutenant governor's. A too-brassy lieutenant governor could provoke him into public outbursts and condemnations. That, of course, is just what Mr. Steinberg wants. It would further demonstrate the distance and differences between the two men. Of course, Mr. Schaefer may try to confound the Steinberg strategy by behaving impeccably. Anything's possible.

By ''going substantive'' during the next 90 days, Mr. Steinberg answers a recurrent criticism, variously voiced: ''He doesn't seem to stand for anything.'' ''We don't know where he wants to lead the state.'' ''He's all style and no substance.''

By taking positions on gun-control and other legislation sure to come before the General Assembly, Mr. Steinberg fleshes out his political persona. In doing so, he has a luxury denied a real governor; he doesn't have to worry how his positions will affect the overall shape and condition of the state budget.

If the Steinberg strategy is to triumph, the media will have to cooperate by giving his legislative activities visibility. But in a political year, the media in good conscience must distinguish between Steinberg doings that are primarily self-promotional, like Monday's ''declaration of candidacy,'' and serious attempts to make a difference in Annapolis -- helping to resolve intractable disputes on important bills, or filling gaps with legislation of his own creation. He may be the highest-ranking state official vying for the governorship, but he shouldn't get much ink or air time if his support or opposition makes no difference to the fate of a particular bill.

Mr. Steinberg has always been a crafty and resourceful legislative tactician. He begins this 90-day stretch on familiar turf, making a well-calculated political wager. When it's all over, he hopes, the political community and the voting public will see him as a Schaefer adversary, a visionary, a man of substance and a legislative miracle worker. It's a gamble that could pay off in a trip to the Governor's Mansion.

But if it doesn't jump-start his flagging campaign, Mr. Steinberg may have to make some additional news in May or June: announce that he's closing up his campaign shop, and endorsing some other Democrat in the race.

Bruce L. Bortz edits The Maryland Report and The Maryland Procurement Report newsletters.

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