Steinberg's world of No. 2 turns promising CAMPAIGN 1994 -- THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR

August 31, 1994|By THOMAS W. Waldron | THOMAS W. Waldron,Sun Staff Writer

In mid-July, Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg huddled with his family around the dining table in Pikesville, his political life in the balance.

With his campaign to become Maryland's next governor unraveling fast, he had only two real options -- quit the race or spend family money to keep his chances alive.

Daughter Barbara spoke for everyone. She urged her father to stay with the fight -- to "go out with principle and integrity."

"And that's what I'm doing," Mr. Steinberg says now.

In the past month, Mr. Steinberg has pumped $150,000 into television ads that will keep his message before voters through the Sept. 13 Democratic primary.

He seems convinced that if Democratic voters are reminded of his record, they will see him as the only candidate qualified to be governor.

"If people can get to know me and check what my qualifications are, I'm a winner going away," Mr. Steinberg says.

His televised pitch to voters appears to be having some success, if modest. Mr. Steinberg moved into second place in poll results released yesterday, but he is still running far behind the Democratic front-runner, Parris N. Glendening.

Mr. Steinberg's credentials include a successful investment career and 28 years in Annapolis, including four as Senate president and eight as lieutenant governor. Mr. Steinberg says that, although he has little executive experience, his work in the private sector and the State House is the right combination for guiding Maryland through a looming budget crunch without more taxes.

The ultimate Annapolis insider, Mr. Steinberg has come up with an astonishingly negative slogan: "Save Our State." Save it, that is, from his opponents.

He dismisses the rest of the Democratic field -- Mr. Glendening, the Prince George's executive, and state Sens. Mary H. Boergers and American Joe Miedusiewski -- with blunt disdain.

"I am not going to leave it to mediocrity, to people with mediocre credentials," Mr. Steinberg says.

"Who out there who's running is better than me?"

Mr. Steinberg balances a mainly liberal agenda on social issues with a moderate approach to the budget. He would expand abortion rights and gun control, for example, and look for alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals. Unlike much of the field, Mr. Steinberg has not proposed toughening the state's parole laws.

But along with his conservative running mate, state Sen. James C. Simpson of Charles County, Mr. Steinberg says he would comb through government, agency by agency, to make cuts to balance the state budget.

Specifically, Mr. Steinberg says he would close one of the state's three mental hospitals, cut back on Medicaid benefits, privatize more of Baltimore-Washington International Airport and close the state Department of Personnel.

He would increase some social spending by establishing "full-service" schools that would offer education for both youngsters and adults, as well as social services, in an effort to curb problems such as teen pregnancy and illiteracy.

Mr. Steinberg also talks about possibly increasing education spending for students in poorer areas of the state, though he stops short of a commitment.

His message, he says, boils down to a simple theme.

"My father worked in a shoe factory and here I'm the lieutenant governor of the state. I want that opportunity for every person. When we walk out, Maryland will be a better place."

Mr. Steinberg's life has, indeed, been an American success story.

He grew up in a home above his father's grocery store near the corner of Lanvale and Bruce streets in West Baltimore, not far from the childhood home of Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

The son of a Russian immigrant father and a Baltimore-born mother, Mr. Steinberg had earned his law degree at the University of Baltimore by the age of 21.

He served two years in the U.S. Navy, started doing legal work for unions and stumbled into politics with an unsuccessful run for the House of Delegates in 1962.

Four years later, he challenged the state senatorial candidate backed by the Baltimore County political machine and scored a surprise victory. He hasn't lost since.

Investments successful

In his private life, Mr. Steinberg made a series of successful investments in businesses and real estate. He owns parts of several apartment complexes around the country, for example, and is the controlling partner in a Baltimore pension fund company.

His worth today exceeds $4 million, according to his financial disclosure statements.

While he quietly built his fortune at home, "Mickey" Steinberg was known as the clown prince of Annapolis, the guy who always broke the tedium with humor.

He once had the three delegates from his district angling for the one spot on a junket to China. The trip turned out to be an elaborate Steinberg practical joke.

Jokes notwithstanding, he played dead-serious politics. Time and again he abandoned alliances to further his career, such as in 1982, when he led a bitter coup to grab the Senate presidency from James Clark.

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