For Md.'s high-profile losers, a look back with bitterness

November 02, 1994|By Doug Birch | Doug Birch,Sun Staff Writer

They were front-runners turned also-rans. Insiders turned out.

In less volatile times, Tuesday's election might have pitted two veteran Baltimore-area pols -- Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, a Democrat, and Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a Republican -- against each other in the race for governor.

But restive voters rejected both decisively in the September primary, abruptly ending two long public careers. Both are now sitting on the shoulder, sounding a little dazed and bitter, trying to figure out what hit them.

Their postmortems might help explain an otherwise puzzling political season.

"The biggest attribute of Helen and myself, we were individuals who had tremendous experience," said Mr. Steinberg, 61, who spent 20 years in the state Senate and eight years as lieutenant governor.

"Business experience. Public sector experience. And it worked against us! Experience had no value in the campaign. It's unbelievable! If I were to hire you as a chef in this restaurant, the first question I would have is, 'What's your experience?' "

Mrs. Bentley, whose eyes welled with tears a couple of times while recalling her party's bitterly contested primary race, called the public mood "very nasty."

High profile proves costly

Voters seemed openly hostile to high-profile officeholders, she said.

"Contrary to popular belief, most elected officials really work very hard on behalf of their constituents, and on behalf of the public," said the 70-year-old, five-term congresswoman. "They're not really goof-offs, and they're not really dishonest people."

For weeks, Mr. Steinberg stayed aloof from the general election race, declining to lend his endorsement to Parris N. Glendening, the Prince George's County executive who beat him in the Democratic primary.

"If I hadn't been a candidate in the primary, there would [have been] no hesitation," Mr. Steinberg said over a bowl of oatmeal in the Suburban House restaurant in Pikesville. "But I experienced a long, hard campaign. I'm human. I don't think I could be a boxer, go 10 rounds, have somebody trying to kill me, and then hug and kiss and say, 'That guy, he's a helluva fighter.' "

On Monday, however, Mr. Steinberg did his duty as one of the state's top Democrats: He issued a statement backing Mr. Glendening, praising his former foe's "proven executive skills."

Mr. Steinberg blames his loss on his refusal to adopt a tax-cutting scheme, on an anti-Baltimore mood in the Washington suburbs, on an electorate bingeing on sound-bites and on his long-running feud with his one-time ally, Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

"I lost the people who were for Schaefer, I lost the people who were against Schaefer," he sighed.

Mr. Steinberg says he has no regrets.

"Since the primary, I feel like there's a 150-pound weight off my chest," he said.

He's a multimillionaire, with investments in apartment houses and a benefits consulting company. His old law firm in Towson, Levin and Gann, has offered him the partnership he gave up when he started his run for governor.

Now he can take vacations, he said, enjoy his grandchildren and maybe act as "an elder statesman" among Maryland Democrats.

Knowledge gained

He poured $467,000 of his personal fortune into the campaign. But he calls it "one of the best investments I have made. I ran to prove something to myself. An experience doesn't have to be successful for you to gain knowledge."

What did he learn?

That beneath the surface of the debate over big vs. small government is an older, potentially uglier issue: race. Mr. Steinberg believes that many white voters have wrongly decided that welfare and other government programs primarily benefit blacks, eroding support for those programs.

"People equate many of the entitlement programs with race rather than economics," he said. "That's not the case. But in the political world, perception is not tantamount but paramount."

White voters "feel there are a lot of freeloaders in our system, a lot of abusers in our system. They're fed up with entitlement programs."

Mr. Steinberg said there are problems with the welfare system. But he sees no easy answers.

Welfare is "broken," he said. "It's not serving the purpose. It's generating generation after generation of dependency. But what you do? Do you just cut it off after so many years? Do you throw babies into the river?"

By Election Day, however, he predicts that many disgruntled Democrats will admit to themselves that simply eliminating aid programs is not the answer.

"We are a decent people," he said. "We are people who believe, 'Yes, we are our brother's keeper.' There are abusers. There are people who violate the system. But they are a minority."

Mrs. Bentley, who until the primary reigned as the Godmother of Republican politics in Baltimore County, is raising money for Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden and Del. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a candidate for her 2nd District congressional seat.

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