Big Foot Bainum

January 27, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

DEMOCRACY in action doesn't come cheap, and to prove it Stewart Bainum Jr. is considering spending $3 million of his own money.

Mr. Bainum, a Democrat, wants to be governor. And in a year when campaign money is scarce because of the absence in both parties of sure-bet front-runners, Mr. Bainum's personal wealth could make the difference. He could become the Big Foot candidate everybody's been waiting for.

The word humming along the fiber optic is that Mr. Bainum, former senator and delegate from Montgomery County, is calling in old chits as he begins assembling the pieces of another campaign. Meantime, he has a pollster toting up numbers to assess his chances.

Mr. Bainum's last campaign was for Congress in 1986. After he lost he was given a consolation prize: His father made him CEO of the family-owned Manor Care nursing home chain, which is also the holding company for the largest string of hotels and motels in the world.

Mr. Bainum's entry into the contest for governor would leave two immediate casualties. First, it would probably knock Sen. Mary Boergers, also of Montgomery County, out of the race. Second, it would deliver a weakening blow to Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening in the suburbs around Washington and especially in Montgomery County, which is critical to winning the gubernatorial primary election.

The remaining two Democrats running for governor are Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg and the phonetically correct Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski (pronounced Med-a-SHEV-ski) of East Baltimore.

Mr. Steinberg has had difficulty assembling a winning campaign apparatus. Just before announcing his candidacy two weeks ago, he engaged in another round of firing and hiring -- a mid-course correction, perhaps, but nevertheless not a good sign.

For his part, Mr. Miedusiewski has had three successful fund-raisers. And while other candidates -- Messrs. Steinberg and Glendening as well as Mr. Bainum -- are convinced that the price tag for the governorship is $3 million, American Joe believes the top job can be won for half that amount.

So while Mr. Bainum is confiding to intimates that he's willing to spend $3 million to win the governorship, the flip side of such financial good fortune is the old dipsy doodle about buying political office. Mr. Bainum will have to address the question of how voters (and other candidates) would regard a candidate who acts as his own bankroller.

So far, the contest for governor remains very much unsettled. No Democrat or Republican has convinced either the voters or Maryland's network of political rubberneckers that he or she has a formula to win. And many of the usual high-rollers are hedging their bets until a front-runner emerges.

That uncertainty could be a distinct advantage for Mr. Bainum. He's virtually unknown outside his own county and therefore a blank slate across much of the state. And he has the personal wealth to fill in the slate with any image he chooses.

Mr. Bainum, now 49, has been a liberal activist both in the General Assembly and at home in Silver Spring. He's probably best known for his successful pursuit and prosecution of the Burning Tree country club. He argued the state was indirectly subsidizing discrimination and waged a solo battle to force the Montgomery County golf club to admit women and minorities or surrender the preferential tax break such clubs receive.

In addition to being financially independent, he's also a successful businessman with an MBA degree hanging on his office wall. But being a businessman hasn't always endeared Mr. Bainum to the business community in Montgomery County.

As a member of the General Assembly, Mr. Bainum often infuriated the Silver Spring business community by siding with the rackety civic and community associations on issues that were hostile to business interests.

And his widely publicized assault on Burning Tree antagonized many businessmen members who golf and cut deals on the links.

Although Mr. Bainum had been hyperactive in Montgomery County politics, one drawback is his lack of a statewide base, either organizational or financial. But he certainly has the resources to more than make up for those shortcomings.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes a regular column on Maryland politics.

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