No. 2 manager departs Steinberg's campaign

March 11, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

For the second time in four months, Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg has suffered a high-level staff departure from his campaign for governor.

Last weekend, the Democratic candidate and Kevin Mack, the No. 2 man in his campaign organization since early January, agreed to part ways.

Mr. Mack, 27, confirmed his resignation yesterday, saying the separation was amicable.

"I'm just going to seek some new challenges," he said. "Mickey is a good guy, and I hope he wins. . . . It was a difficult decision, but I think it was the right one for the people involved."

Mr. Mack declined to discuss details, though he conceded that when he took the job he planned to remain with Mr. Steinberg through the election year.

Sources close to the campaign said Mr. Mack's reasons for leaving echo complaints lodged against Mr. Steinberg in the past -- that he hires professionals, then disregards much of their advice.

"Mickey just can't let go," said one source. "He wants to manage his own campaign."

Mr. Steinberg said yesterday that as far as he knows, Mr. Mack is leaving because he has better opportunities elsewhere. He said he was pleased with Mr. Mack's work and knew of no dissatisfaction on Mr. Mack's part.

"He could still be working here," Mr. Steinberg said. "I was happy with him."

Mr. Mack's abrupt leave-taking is sure to fuel speculation that Mr. Steinberg's campaign operation has failed to shake organizational problems that have afflicted it for months.

Mr. Mack is the former executive director of the Virginia Democratic Caucus, a post in which he oversaw statewide campaign strategy for 77 members of the House of Delegates. Mr. Steinberg announced his hiring in a Jan. 4 news release as part of an organizational shake-up in which a new team of consultants was installed at the top of the campaign organization.

The release described Mr. Mack as the "day-to-day campaign manager," second only to Michael F. Ford, the senior consultant and strategist hired about the same time.

But Mr. Steinberg yesterday took issue with the title his own release gave to Mr. Mack, saying Mr. Mack was nothing more than the "day-to-day office manager."

"He was not my campaign manager," Mr. Steinberg said.

Mr. Mack's departure after less than three months on the job follows the bitter split last October between Mr. Steinberg and his senior campaign coordinator, Theodore G. Venetoulis.

Mr. Steinberg fired the one-time Baltimore County executive, an old personal and political friend, on Oct. 29, even though at the time, the campaign insisted that the organization -- and Mr. Venetoulis' role in it -- was simply being restructured.

That breakup was elevated from an embarrassment to a political liability in late December when Mr. Venetoulis filed suit against Mr. Steinberg, claiming he was dismissed without cause after less than five months on the job.

The size of Mr. Venetoulis' contract -- which court documents revealed could have paid him $250,000 if Mr. Steinberg won the September Democratic primary -- caused some observers to question the manner in which the campaign spent its money.

Mr. Steinberg responded the same day with a countersuit, alleging financial irregularities by Mr. Venetoulis involving payment of his salary, campaign bills and expense accounts. Both suits are pending in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

Throughout the final months of last year, Mr. Steinberg's campaign was said by observers, including many of his closest supporters, to lack direction. Critics, even friendly ones, used words like "flat" and "stalled" to describe his campaign.

With Mr. Mack and the rest of his new team in place, Mr. Steinberg began 1994 with a headline-grabbing campaign kick-off and a vow to use the current General Assembly session to promote his campaign themes. So far, however, he has garnered the most publicity from his call for a $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes -- a proposal that is given virtually no chance of passage by the legislature.

Nearly two months into the 90-day legislative session, Mr. Steinberg has not been able to follow through on his promise to use the session to his advantage.

He testified, colorfully and with great passion, for his cigarette tax proposal 10 days ago, but beyond that has not been especially visible on the State House scene.

Also, he recently decided to pass up Wednesday night's gubernatorial forum before the legislative Black Caucus.

Del. John D. Jefferies, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the caucus, said black lawmakers felt "snubbed" by Mr. Steinberg's absence.

Dennis C. Donaldson, political director of the Steinberg campaign, explained the lieutenant governor's absence by saying he had a prior appointment with potential contributors from out of town, who were friends of Mr. Steinberg's brother, Norman.

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