Some Have Nullity Thrust upon Them

June 23, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — It's time once again for the quadrennial ticket-building follies, and swarms of Maryland gubernatorial candidates are rummaging around in unlikely places looking for prospective lieutenant governors to run with them.

This odd ritual can be amusing to watch, and often produces bizarre results. Every four years it gets harder, because experienced politicians have learned that if they see a would-be governor coming up to their front door at this season of the election cycle, the prudent course is to hide in the basement and refuse to answer the bell.

Running for lieutenant governor is risky business. If you lose you'll be a certified loser, and in politics that's a heavy burden. Since 1970, when the office was returned to the Maryland ballot for the first time in more than a century, through 1990, more than 20 people have run for the job and lost. Only one -- Congressman Steny Hoyer, defeated as a candidate for lieutenant governor in the 1978 Democratic primary -- went on to win major office afterwards.

Running for lieutenant governor and winning isn't much better. If you are elected, people will spend the next four or maybe eight years making jokes about you, and are likely to whack you down if you run for higher office.

When the first modern lieutenant governor, Blair Lee III, ran for governor and was defeated, his failure was attributed to public disgust with Marvin Mandel, on whose ticket he had been twice elected. Maybe so. Certainly he tried to distance himself from Mr. Mandel, a once-popular governor whose administration ended in disarray, but those efforts were to no avail.

The parallel with Blair Lee has doubtless occurred to the incumbent lieutenant governor, Mickey Steinberg, who has tried much more vigorously to disassociate himself from the fading two-term governor who got him his job. Disassociation he's achieved, but he's been left standing out in the rain so long that his political prospects are badly corroded.

Mr. Steinberg's predecessor as lieutenant governor, Joe Curran, escaped a similar fate by fleeing the dismal office after one term and winning election to two terms as the state's attorney general, where he did real work and redeemed his reputation. Mr. Curran's predecessor was a man named Samuel W. Bogley, a political unknown before, during and after his term, who demonstrated conclusively that the office was so irrelevant you could probably put a basset hound in it and not affect the operations of the state government.

The fact that this superfluous office is a proven sinkhole for political careers ought to be a considerable disincentive to potential candidates, but hope still triumphs over experience, and there appears to be a bottomless pool of ambitious obscurities ready to offer themselves to the electorate.

As a result, no candidate for governor of Maryland has yet had towithdraw for the lack of a running mate. Unsuccessful lieutenant governor candidates Melvin Bilal, Ron Young, Lois Shepard, Ann Stockett, Frank Wade and all the now-forgotten others can share in the credit for that.

This year's ticket-making is stranger than ever. Thus far, Prince George's County's Parris Glendening looks like a clear winner of the 1994 Bogley Award, offered to the gubernatorial candidate making the most perplexing selection of a running mate.

Mr. Glendening has picked up some important political backing, but he has certain drawbacks. While he's dandy from the perspective of Kurt Schmoke's City Hall, in much of Maryland he looks a little too out-of-state, a little too liberal, a little too Washington to be acceptable to ordinary Democrats.

So whom does Mr. Glendening select as a running mate? He chooses Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a lawyer who works in the Clinton/Reno Justice Department. She is the daughter of a famous liberal Democrat from Massachusetts who represented New York in the Senate. But she does commute to her Washington job from Baltimore County; perhaps that's where the ticket-balancing comes in.

Over on the Republican side of the gubernatorial campaign, Representative Helen Delich Bentley has just chosen state Sen. Howard Denis of Montgomery County to run with her.

Mr. Denis has taken a clear position on some of the issues Republicans seem to be most interested in. Whether his clear positions are Republican ones or not, I'm not sure. He's voted for gun control and higher state taxes. I thought Republicans generally opposed those things, but maybe, as Humphrey Bogart said in ''Casablanca,'' I was misinformed.

But he has a good pedigree in state politics. One of his first jobs was as an aide to state Sen. Louise Gore, the Republican nominee for governor 20 years ago this fall. She lost to Marvin Mandel in a landslide.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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