Raspberry Joe Emerges from the Weeds

July 24, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- Harry Hughes, said the late Harry J. McGuirk rather smugly just about 16 years ago, ''is a lost ball in the high grass.'' It was a fine phrase, and Mr. McGuirk savored it. It was fine when he said it because it was both cruel and true, but it's only memorable now because its truth had such a short life.

In 1978, Harry Hughes was running for governor in the Democratic primary much the way American Joe Miedusiewski began his campaign this year. He knew he didn't have a chance, but he had some things he wanted to say that weren't getting said, and he thought some of the voters might appreciate a little more variety on the ballot.

American Joe isn't Harry Hughes, and 1994 isn't 1978. But there are enough similarities to make it possible to take a look back at that inspiring and unusual year and come away with a new perspective on this so far rather discouraging one.

The other Democratic candidates in the summer of 1978 included the organization guy, Blair Lee III, and a couple of wacky liberals, Baltimore County Executive Ted Venetoulis and President Walter Orlinsky of the Baltimore City Council. The assumption was that Mr. Lee, Marvin Mandel's lieutenant governor, would get most of the votes, and Mr. Venetoulis would get most of what was left.

Of course, it didn't work out that way at all. First, The Sun's editors discovered Mr. Hughes out there in the grass, and after they gave him an early, emphatic and thoroughly unexpected endorsement, a poll showed that voters had started to take him seriously. Once that happened, Mr. McGuirk's crack began to lose its edge.

But in the eyes of just about everyone considering himself knowledgeable about Maryland politics, including me, Mr. Hughes retained his long-shot status until the primary voting ended on the evening of September 12, and he had defeated Mr. Lee by just under 20,000 votes out of more than 600,000 cast.

It was, on one level, a case of the electorate giving the political establishment the raspberry. Voters went to the polls not expecting Mr. Hughes to win, perhaps, but believing him a credible candidate well worth their support. They wanted to send a message, and they certainly did. When they saw that they'd won, too, they were jubilant.

I vividly remember the effort put in by Kitty Mueller and other members of the Democratic Ladies Guild, a middle-class black organization in northwest Baltimore that supported Mr. Hughes, bucking the black political establishment, which was for Mr. Lee.

''We gave it everything we had, even the gas-and-electric

money,'' she said, but it wasn't until the last day or so of the campaign that she thought her candidate had a chance. Mrs. Mueller died a few weeks ago, a great loss to her city, and I regret not having her thoughts on how this year's campaign is shaping up.

One interesting aspect of the 1978 campaign was the way the favorite, Mr. Lee, pinned all his hopes on Maryland's Washington suburbs, much the way Prince George's County's Parris Glendening is doing this year. Mr. Lee was from Montgomery County, and he chose a Prince Georgian, Steny Hoyer, to be his running mate. He figured that the vote from those two counties, plus what the state Democratic organization could grind out for him in the rest of the state, would be sufficient.

But he figured wrong. The suburbanites, never very interested in Maryland, stayed home. With more than a quarter of the state's population at the time, Montgomery and Prince George's might have been expected to produce a quarter of the votes in the

primary; instead, they produced about 10 percent. Mr. Lee won the two giant counties easily, but not by enough to offset his weakness elsewhere.

Mr. Glendening's situation this year isn't identical to Mr. Lee's, but there are parallels. He needs a big vote from Montgomery and Prince George's, plus a good turnout generated by organization types elsewhere. And although they're way behind him in the polls, his rivals Mary Boergers of Montgomery County and Lieutenant Governor Mickey Steinberg will compete with him for that support.

For those Democrats looking for a way to give the establishment the kind of a raspberry they delivered in 1978, Mr. Miedusiewski may be the only real option this year. But most people want to think their candidate has a chance before deciding to risk a vote, and until very recently in this campaign, American Joe has been the ball lost in the grass.

He's beginning to emerge from the weeds, however, thanks to his own efforts, his aggressive advertising campaign, and the ineptitude of the other candidates. He isn't likely to be editorially ''discovered'' as was Mr. Hughes, but that's probably in his favor; in this year's climate, any special big-media endorsement is more likely to taint a protest candidate than help him.

The 1978 primary was a strong rejection by Marylanders of the way the state had been conducting its political business, and it led to eight years of decent, low-key and generally admirable government. This year might not be exactly like that, but it's interesting how quickly Democrats are learning to pronounce Miedusiewski.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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