Steinberg forced to get serious, cut laugh lines

April 28, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg can read, and therefore he can worry. All the newspapers say his campaign for governor fails to leave the starting block. Top aides have deserted him. He's described as a lifelong shmoozer who doesn't get it: This is the big-time now, and he's got to take that grin off his face and get serious.

Two days ago, the highly serious Parris Glendening made his own candidacy official, and also painful to Steinberg. Speaking to a gathering of Washington suburb types, Glendening, the Prince George's County executive, chose to embrace Baltimore even when it couldn't have won him any immediate points.

This did several things simultaneously. It signaled to those from the Washington suburbs that Glendening is a man with a statewide vision. It said to Baltimoreans that the largely unknown Glendening doesn't want to freeze them out. And it sounded seductive to Mickey Steinberg's natural base of voters, who have already begun to shop around.

But, in the face of all this, Steinberg insists he's not worried. Nobody knows what to make of this. He's been prodded by nervous legislative pals and by anxious family members, who read the same newspapers as Steinberg and who hear street talk he may not hear, and they find it implausible when he assures them that all is well.

This is either the savviest old hand steering his battered ship through churning political waters, or a man in serious psychological denial.

"The newspaper stories?" Steinberg was saying yesterday. "Why do you read the newspapers? It's the same story over and over, but it's wrong. I'm still No. 1."

He sounded like a man who's said this before and wonders why nobody hears him. The political winds change, and the $l campaign season stretches across long months, and Steinberg assumes the things that have worked in the past will work in the future.

But it's a bigger game now. In the legislature, he mastered the art of the soft sell. Those despairing of his current campaign worry he's playing a game out of context: To nudge a bill through committee is not the same as explaining to an entire state why it should vote a certain way.

In Steinberg's head, it's a bad rap. He's being pasted for being a charmer, and finds himself having to cut out laugh lines. There's an edge to his voice now. He marches directly into areas that once seemed conversational afterthoughts: public safety mostly, but also health care, schools, narcotics.

"I've had meetings with 40 or 50 people now," he says. "Experts in their field. I'm picking their brains. New times demand new priorities, that's our slogan. We want the real thing."

Everywhere he goes, Steinberg says, the concern is crime. Scheduled to speak in Salisbury, he asked a local pol, "Should I stick to the crime issue here?"

"Absolutely," he was told. "It's here, too. It's our major concern."

Thus emerges a crime program, and not merely a rueful shaking of the head. He says he wants to cut the prison population in half, by releasing those doing time for nonviolent crimes. Put them on work release, on home detention, Steinberg says. If they've shown no violent history in the last decade, there's no need to maintain them behind bars. Make cells available for the real tough guys.

Also, he'd put nonviolent drug offenders into programs where they get treatment instead of prison. It sounds a little like Kurt L. Schmoke's notion of treating drug abuse primarily as a health problem. The Schmoke comparison is not one Steinberg likes.

"I've been talking about treatment on demand for the last six years," he says, shrugging off Schmoke's well-publicized calls for a change in drug policy.

But it's more than pride of authorship here. Schmoke's been talking to Glendening, and Steinberg expects him to endorse Glendening any day now. It's one more cut into Steinberg's turf, one more reason for Baltimore voters to shop around.

Steinberg snaps off a couple of put-downs, not quite with his usual zest. He sounds a little weary of having to defend his campaign. Everything's OK, he says. Money's coming in. Those staff defections were nothing. Position papers are on their way. He wants to talk about silicon chips, about venture capital, about making Maryland an intellectual haven.

It's the sound of a candidate who's finally starting to find his voice.

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