Steinberg puts cheerful light on dim prospects

June 26, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Melvin A. "Mickey" Steinberg is walking through Louie's Book Store Cafe, in the 500 block of N. Charles St., when he bumps into a bunch of children. Steinberg is running for governor of Maryland. The children are maybe elementary school age. Steinberg spots an opening.

"Are your parents Democrats or Republicans?" he asks.

"Yes," the kids yell in chorus.

Steinberg rolls his eyes a little. He doesn't want a yes, he wants a poll. He asks the kids what they're doing here. They're members of the Carroll County Children's Chorus, they say. And then, right here in Louie's, they begin to sing.

"We are marching in the light of God," they chorus for the next several minutes.

"Superb," says Steinberg, offering a one-man ovation. The kids take little bows. Then Steinberg offers some wisdom.

"A political tip," he calls it, as he grabs a baseball cap off one kid's head. "While everybody's singing, one guy walks around and holds out his cap, and people put money in the cap. That's how I made it, see? It's tough raising money, but this will work, I promise."

The kids don't know exactly what to make of this, but it doesn't precisely matter. Steinberg's in a great mood, and it doesn't precisely make sense. His campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor is lagging.

Since January, hitting the political treadmill here, hitting the workout treadmill there, he's lost 35 pounds from his 5-foot-7 frame. During the same period, though, he's lost weight in the Democratic polls, moving from apparent front-runner to a man trailing Prince George's County's Parris Glendening by 10 points in last week's Mason-Dixon survey.

And on this Wednesday afternoon, the day after Glendening brought Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to Annapolis to announce that she is his running mate, there are some who think the Democratic race is now over, that Glendening has enough money, enough organization, enough statewide insider support that he's the party's nominee.

Townsend, in this line of thinking, helped cinch things. The moment she stepped in front of microphones the other day, she introduced her mother, Ethel, and then she quoted her father, Robert. Heaven forbid anybody should miss the connection.

Townsend's a lovely woman. She's smart, energetic and idealistic. There's a belief that her maiden name will attract much money to the campaign, even more than Steinberg can by passing around a kid's baseball cap. ("We're not going to reject that extra support," Glendening declared, in dry understatement, when asked about such Kennedy-connection financial help.)

But there's also talk that her political roots in Maryland are a little shallow, and her connections with various state legislators a little nonexistent. Many still think of her as an outsider whose strength in local politics derives strictly from nomenclature.

"I grew up in a family that believes in public service," she declared in Annapolis. "Tomorrow can be better than today."

This is classic Kennedy language, but it's also a little generic. Townsend needs to show Marylanders she can talk specifically about Maryland issues, or she diminishes the seriousness of the Glendening campaign.

At week's end, similar questions were being raised about Steinberg's reported choice, former Rep. Tom McMillen, who overcame his own carpetbagger charges to win a couple of elections to Congress, at least partly on his recognition as a basketball player. Whatever his congressional background, though, McMillen still has no state-level political history.

It is known that Steinberg has also held discussions with Bishop Robinson, the state public safety secretary. In the complex nature of such things, candidates sit with potential running mates and each dances a delicate dance of seduction and coyness and anticipation. In such an atmosphere, both Robinson and McMillen are each apparently still in the game, with Steinberg hoping to make his announcement in the next 72 hours.

Does the choice of a running mate matter, with the polls showing Glendening 10 points ahead?

"I don't worry about things I have no control over," Steinberg said last week. "Listen, I'm lucky I'm here today. I was in a serious accident when I was in the Navy, back in 1956. My mother got a letter, 'We regret to inform you. . . .' "

He'd been in a car crash, underwent surgery, thought he'd lost his legs. The implication: He's been in worse jams than this one. This isn't life and death, it's just politics.

That's either the mark of a man who's got a remarkably healthy perspective, or of one who's already trying to make peace with himself for once being the perceived front-runner, and now finding himself passing the hat around and hoping he can at least get back the hat.

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