With Friends Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

February 06, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Sometimes, officials running for higher office discover, sadly, that not all their allies are really in their camp, and not all their trusted associates are fully trustworthy. Such are the travails of ambitious politicians.

Take the tale told by Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg, who is running full-speed-ahead for governor. Last year, his campaign seemed rudderless. He was drifting as his chief foe, Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening, methodically constructed his own gubernatorial base of support.

So last June, Mr. Steinberg turned to a longtime friend and political pal from Baltimore County. He hired Theodore Venetoulis to run his campaign.

At the time, some questioned the move. Mr. Venetoulis had failed miserably in his own bid to become governor in 1978. He's been out of politics since. He also had his own personal financial woes.

But Mr. Venetoulis had been a successful behind-the-scenes campaign guru over the years. He masterminded William Donald Schaefer's first mayoral sweep in 1971, surprised everyone when he won the Baltimore County executive's race for himself in 1974 and plotted Jerry Brown's victory in the 1976 Maryland presidential primary.

Now it turns out the cynics may have been right. Mr. Venetoulis was fired in October. Mr. Steinberg is suing his former ally (and is being counter-sued), alleging financial irregularities. Privately, Steinberg supporters say he was too gullible, that his ex-campaign manager got more out of this political relationship than the candidate did.

For starters, Mr. Steinberg agreed to a lucrative financial arrangement that put Mr. Venetoulis in the stratosphere of local campaign managers. If the lieutenant governor were to win the September Democratic primary, Mr. Venetoulis would have collected a grand total of $250,000 for his services. That would equal 10 percent -- or more -- of all the campaign funds Mr. Steinberg hopes to raise.

It is a staggering amount. No wonder Mr. Steinberg has been complaining about the insatiable financial demands of a campaign. Judging from Mr. Venetoulis' salary, Mr. Steinberg's overhead was soaking up every dollar coming in the front door.

Moreover, the Steinberg campaign continued to spin its wheels. The candidate was as verbose and unfocused as ever on the hustings. He looked overweight. His strategy seemed to shift with the wind.

Since the two former allies parted company, Mr. Steinberg's fortunes have improved a bit. He has a new campaign manager who has persuaded the candidate to slim down, to shorten his stump speech and to start zeroing in on core issues. The lieutenant governor may also have learned an important lesson about political friendships: trust no one completely.

That's something Republican Del. Robert L. Ehrlich is learning, too. He thought his solid, conservative record would ensure him the continued support of Baltimore County's anti-tax zealots as Mr. Ehrlich launched his campaign for Congress. Instead, the something-for-nothing crowd turned on him at the first opportunity.

Property Taxpayers United, branching far from its mission of equitable property-tax assessments and lower tax rates, suddenly jumped into the field of crime-prevention. It blasted Mr. Ehrlich as ''the leader of the Pro-Criminal Lobby'' in Annapolis.

His crime? Opposing a victims' rights constitutional amendment that many legal experts believe is simplistic, duplicative of existing laws and actually counter-productive in the quest for an improved criminal-justice system.

But the frustrated citizenry wants this victims' rights amendment to the state constitution. It won't do anything to stem the crime problem, but it's a ''feel-good'' measure for those seeking a superficial, cost-free solution.

Mr. Ehrlich's fellow congressional candidate, Democratic Del. Gerry Brewster, started this babble about a ''pro-criminal lobby'' in his attempt to woo support from groups like Property Taxpayers United. It's sheer demagogy.

Ignored is Mr. Ehrlich's eight-year record of support for conservative measures on crime-fighting and on property-tax relief. Ignored, too, is Mr. Brewster's quixotic political journey that has had him all over the ideological spectrum.

Instead, the property-tax zealots embraced Mr. Brewster and condemned Mr. Ehrlich at the first opportunity. The Republican delegate's friends in that group turned out to be sunshine patriots.

They also deserted their hero of 1990, Roger Hayden, after County Executive Hayden dared to differ on policy matters.

The fact that Mr. Hayden did what the group wanted in lopping off county jobs and cutting the size of government mattered not a whit. Once Mr. Hayden failed to toe the group's ideological line, it was ''Off with his head.'' Now, Property Taxpayers United calls Mr. Hayden ''the Weasel.''

There's a moral in this for politicians. Be careful whom you jump into bed with. Sometimes the allies you covet have their own political and personal agendas. And sometimes your allies are so fickle and unthinking that it's not worth the trouble to court their support.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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