Governor's campaign could reprise 1966

March 03, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

ONE BASIC law of any political campaign is that it's impossible to be the candidate and the campaign manager at the same time. Anyone who tries will be a failure at both.

It's too bad nobody bothered to tell Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg. It appears that he's giving himself bad advice. His latest symbol-minded stunt is a good example.

Using a cemetery as a backdrop, Mr. Steinberg brandished a pack of cigarettes -- doctored up with a skull and crossbones -- to denounce Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposed 25-cent a pack tax increase as fainthearted and to advance his own bloviated hike of $2 a pack.

Mr. Steinberg's proffer may be good medicine, but it's bad politics. He may win the muted applause of the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association. But try selling the idea to smokers on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland. They buy their cigarettes in Delaware and Pennsylvania.

Worse, try the hard-sell in the General Assembly, where even Mr. Schaefer's modest two-bit tax is in trouble.

Yet that's exactly what Mr. Steinberg is doing. He is asking the legislature to substitute his $2 increase for Mr. Schaefer's quarter.

Mr. Steinberg's previous attempt at politics-as-theater was a street-corner sales job against crime. He stood on the corner where his uncle had been gunned down and declaimed himself the anti-crime candidate. He may soon replace Mr. Schaefer as the king of kitsch.

Earlier, Mr. Steinberg announced that he planned to employ the General Assembly as the centerpiece of his campaign for governor. But there's a kink in that strategy, too.

The legislature is greased by votes, patronage and trade-offs -- a system of winks and nods, rewards and punishments. Mr. Steinberg has none of the above. Worse, he has no access to the governor, who does.

Mr. Steinberg has been so preoccupied with reinventing his campaign and with a nasty little legal spat with former campaign manager Ted Venetoulis, whom he fired last year, that his eyes have been deflected from the prize. He's behind in the polls and he's being written off by most political observers.

Mr. Steinberg is one of five or six Democrats groping for the governorship. In a six-way race it is theoretically possible for a candidate to win with just 17 percent of the vote.

The last time Democrats had a multiple-candidate race was in 1966. That was the year the Democrats begat candidate George P. Mahoney and Mr. Mahoney begat Republican Gov. Spiro T. Agnew.

In addition to Mr. Mahoney, the Democrats in 1966 included Attorney General Thomas B. Finan, Rep. Carlton R. Sickles and attorney Clarence W. Miles. When the returns came in, Mr. Mahoney's ''Your home is your castle'' campaign squeezed by Mr. Sickles by just under 2,000 votes. Mr. Finan, who had the money and the might of the Tawes-Hocker machine, ran a disappointing third.

Mr. Finan, like Mr. Steinberg, was the consummate insider who tried to campaign as an outsider. His ''Blueprint for Progress'' plan to reorganize state government was intended to be a badge of distinction. Yet everyone knew he had the dominant political organization of the era stuck to him like Crazy Glue.

Mr. Finan even pulled a Steinberg-type stunt of his own. He put on a pair of swimming trunks and plunged into the Chesapeake Bay to disprove Mr. Sickles' contention that the water was contaminated.

In an ironic twist, Ted Venetoulis, who recently was sacked as Mr. Steinberg's campaign manager, also managed Mr. Sickles' losing campaign.

The trouble with Mr. Steinberg's counseling of himself is that he's not sure what or who he wants to be. One day he's a stand-up comedian, the next he's a street-corner shill mugging for the cameras.

Yet the one thing that everybody knows Mr. Steinberg is not is an active lieutenant governor. Mr. Steinberg was long ago stripped of his epaulets and portfolio by Mr. Schaefer.

One of history's most famous political consultants, the Italian courtier Niccolo Machiavelli, once counseled his sovereign not to engage in ''sudden or abrupt changes of character, lest the populace become suspicious.''

The same advice applies to Mr. Steinberg. Be young, have fun, be Mickey.

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

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