What State and Democrats Need is a Good Boss

August 21, 1994|By FRANK A. DeFILIPPO

Call it what you will, a hankering for the bad old days or just plain nostalgia, but if Irv Kovens or Jack Pollack were alive today the Democratic Party and Maryland politics in general wouldn't be in the sorry mess they're in.

For the truth is that what Maryland politics lacks since the death of Mr. Kovens four years ago is a central intelligence. When Mr. Kovens died in 1990, he left an estate of functions that no one has stepped forward to claim -- because nobody wants the job or can do it.

This is not a lament for the passing of bossism. Nor is it an exercise in political taxidermy. But a look in the rear-view mirror shows that the concept of politics as an extended family surely beats what's out there now.

The conventional wisdom is that political bosses are deader than pterodactyls. And if this is the case, so, too, are political parties and party discipline. They're been replaced by fax machines, e-mail, radio talk-show hosts, the omnipresent television camera, the religious right, the academic left and the parliament of the permanently disgruntled.

In Maryland there are really four Democratic parties: the Baltimore area party, the Washington suburban party, the white Democratic Party and the black Democratic Party. And there's no mustard-cutter around to pull them together. By comparison, Republicans generally tend to stick together if only because there just aren't enough of them to make a major difference. Except in a year as fractured as this.

If anecdotal evidence is needed, consider this: The state's two top elected Democrats, Gov. William Donald Schaefer and his outcast lieutenant governor, Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg, have both hinted that they'll vote Republican in November if things don't go their way in next month's primary. And the party chairwoman, Baltimore Councilwoman Vera Hall, has compromised her neutrality in the gubernatorial primary by denouncing state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski for those wickedly playful radio commercials he's running.

A mere four and eight years ago, Mr. Kovens' strong arm was able to reach out across the state and unify its competing interests behind a single candidate for governor, William Donald Schaefer. And before him, Mr. Pollack was able to assemble statewide coalitions through handshakes with the Sasser machine in Prince George's County as well as with Col. E. Brooke Lee, the iron-willed boss of Montgomery County. And before them there were Arthur Pue Gorman, Issac Freeman Rasin, Sonny Mahon, Frank Kelly and William "Papa" Curran.

In 1976, Marvin Mandel, then governor, who disliked Jimmy Carter, assembled 53 political bosses and elected officials from around the state at the Baltimore Hilton Hotel to ask them to support Jerry Brown for president. No meeting like it had ever been held. Mr. Brown won the 1976 Maryland primary.

And it's a rare occasion when the same political clubhouse in the northwest corner of Baltimore could produce a governor as well as a mayor. During the high-flying years of Marvin Mandel, Mr. Kovens had a governor in the State House and a mayor in City Hall, which in turn made him a major player in the General Assembly and the City Council as well as the deal-maker in the Democratic State Central Committee.

And to some extent, Mr. Mandel and Mr. Kovens even asserted control over the Republican Party through allies in the State House and the appointment of friendly Republicans to key patronage positions and judgeships.

And Mr. Kovens' sidekick in politics was William "Little Willie" Adams, who acted as Mr. Kovens' enforcer in the black community in exchange for assurances that blacks would get their fair share of patronage positions.

And those were among the most productive years in modern history both at the state level and in Baltimore. From Annapolis came the piggy-back tax, the school construction program, huge local aid programs, the Convention Center, the World Trade Center and the Metro. And those bricks-and-mortar projects, in turn, begat Harborplace, which became the launch-pad for Baltimore's tourism business. And it was usually Mr. Kovens who would deliver Mr. Schaefer's wish-list of needs and wants via Mr. Mandel's private phone in his State House office.

But as sure as the Second Law of Thermodynamics holds that sooner or later everything turns to mulch, such unity and single-purpose politics have vanished and gotten us to the present state of deterioration and disarray.

If Mr. Kovens were alive today, would Mickey Steinberg be imploding before our very eyes? Would there, in fact, be seven major candidates for governor -- four Democrats and three Republicans? And would Baltimore be struggling for political hegemony in a regional duel with the Maryland suburbs around Washington?

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