Political strategist plays a bigger hand

June 20, 1994|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Sun Staff Writer

The campaign sign -- lawn or window, bus or billboard -- is the signature of Larry Steve Gibson's onrushing career in Maryland politics.

He uses polling, television advertising and computers, to be sure, but the carefully conceived and widely distributed placard gives his campaigns the highly visible and personal touch the political strategist finds essential.

"I've gotten the reputation of being a sign and poster nut. I am. I prefer to see them on private property. It's not just advertising. It's the homeowner saying to his or her neighbors, 'I'm for this person.' So we do this as much as we can."

And this year, the 52-year-old Baltimore Democrat, lawyer, lawprofessor, gardener, world traveler and scuba diver is extending his power beyond the city as he works to elect a governor and a new Prince George's County executive.

When Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke endorsed the current executive, Parris N. Glendening, for governor, Mr. Gibson's talents were put at Mr. Glendening's disposal. When the endorsement was made at City Hall, Mr. Gibson was there to unfurl the campaign banner. At his home on Lambeth Road, he is even now refining his version of a Baltimore for Glendening sign. Look for it in a window near you.

"Larry likes to have power gravitate towards him," says state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, a Democratic candidate for governor from Baltimore. "I think what he's trying to do is pull off the hat trick: Prince George's executive, governor and mayor of Baltimore. If he wins, people will say, 'What a genius!' If he doesn't, he can say, 'Hey, I had three balls in the air.' "

Though his string of victories reaches back to the late 1960s, Mr. Gibson's cache resides primarily in his work over the past 12 years for Mr. Schmoke, who is expected to seek re-election next year.

In Baltimore, Mr. Gibson has relied on something political professionals call visibility. In 1972, he gained a memorable victory for Sen. George P. McGovern's weak presidential bid by hiring 40 school buses, 40 sound and light systems and 40 bullhorns to get out the vote.

In 1984, he put on such a display of lawn signs advertising a mid-term fund-raiser for Mr. Schmoke, who was then Baltimore state's attorney, that the City Council passed an ordinance limiting the use of such signs to the campaign season.

In the 1992 presidential election, Mr. Gibson's voter registration efforts in Baltimore and his insistence on a distinctly Maryland campaign button helped Bill Clinton win more than 50 percent of the vote here, the second-best showing in the nation behind only Arkansas, Mr. Clinton's home state.

"He's a great rah-rah, pull-the-troops-together guy," says Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore. "He has great personal loyalties. People will sit and churn out work for him."

This summer, he will scoot down the expressway two or three times a week to work as senior adviser in lawyer Wayne Curry's campaign to succeed Mr. Glendening as county executive in Prince George's. Mr. Curry and his campaign manager, Greg Wells, were students of Mr. Gibson's at the University of Maryland law school.

They wanted his experience -- and the reflected glamour of Mr. Schmoke, who is very popular in the county.

'Smoke and mirrors'

While some speak of Mr. Gibson as a man driven to translate black voting potential into black political power, he says "vision" is too fancy a word for what motivates him. He is drawn to politics by his desire to see talented people in office, by friendship and by the attraction that usually exists between human beings and things they do well.

"He's the epitome of smoke and mirrors in politics," says one of his allies, who asks not to be quoted by name. While Mr. Gibson was only one of the players in the Clinton victory, this person says he has taken much of the credit.

Detractors say he twice turned what should have been certain victory into near defeat. In the 1987 and 1991 mayoral races, Mr. Schmoke's victory over former Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns was narrower than critics thought it should have been.

Mr. Burns, though, had his strengths: affability, long service and the backing of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's machine.

In 1968, Mr. Gibson managed Parren J. Mitchell's unsuccessful first race for Congress, then helped him win by 38 votes in 1970. His candidate for state's attorney of Baltimore, Milton B. Allen, was elected in 1970 but defeated in a bid for re-election four years later. Mr. Gibson was also co-director of former Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs' losing campaign for governor in 1986.

"You do the right thing," Mr. Gibson says. "When you have exceptional people, you try to support them. That's what I've tried to do here in Baltimore. If Wayne loses, it's a loss. But it won't be the first."

An important election

His venture into the Prince George's campaign is resented by some, welcomed by others.

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