Gibson defects to new camp Top state organizer rejects Glendening for '98, assists Rehrmann

September 06, 1997|By C. Fraser Smith and JoAnna Daemmrich | C. Fraser Smith and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Larry S. Gibson, the premier political organizer in Maryland and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's closest adviser, said yesterday that he will back Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann in the 1998 race for governor.

Schmoke said Gibson was acting on his own, but the high-level defection will be seen as a blow to the re-election prospects of Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

"I think Glendening has almost no chance of winning the general election," Gibson said in an interview in which he was highly critical of the Democratic governor's performance and integrity.

"A vote for Glendening in the primary is a vote for Ellen Sauerbrey," Gibson said, referring to the likely Republican nominee. He said it is fear of a Republican takeover in the General Assembly and State House that has turned him away from his party's incumbent governor.

The Rehrmann campaign eagerly acknowledged that Gibson is serving as a strategist and adviser for her.

"Larry's definitely on our team, and we're glad to have his help. He's a smart man," said George Harrison, one of Rehrmann's campaign managers. "He has extensive knowledge of grass-roots politics, how to get out the vote," he said.

Democratic party sources said Gibson chose Rehrmann over Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who took himself out of the race for governor Tuesday, in part because she would be a more attractive campaigner than the congressman.

A Glendening campaign official, Robin O. Oegerle, said Gibson was merely shopping his skills to the highest bidder.

"Larry Gibson is a free agent, an independent operator," she said. "He's going to work for whomever pays him the most money. So I think everything he says you should take with a grain of salt."

Gibson said he is not being paid at the moment and that his precise role in the campaign has not been defined.

Symbolism and credibility

Whatever his title or compensation, Gibson is a major political player whom many will regard as the unofficial representative of Schmoke as well as of Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry. Gibson worked in Curry's victorious 1994 campaign and knows the political dynamic of that county well.

"Larry Gibson likes to work with winners," said former state legislator Timothy F. Maloney of Prince George's. "He wouldn't be spending time if he didn't think she could win."

"It gives Rehrmann credibility," said Herb Smith, a political scientist at Western Maryland College who tracks local elections. "It's especially important in the community that counts during this very early stage, and that is the political community."

Schmoke said he was aware that his chief political strategist was working as a consultant for Rehrmann. But he distanced himself by saying that Gibson was acting independently.

As he has for the past few months, Schmoke maintained that he would not make any political decisions or endorsements until the end of the legislative session.

"He's doing that on his own," Schmoke said. "A lot of people go to him to ask for political advice, and he makes his own judgment. I am not getting involved at this point."

Curry could not be reached for comment.

Already, Gibson has been out with Rehrmann introducing her to potential campaign contributors.

On Tuesday night, after the premiere of the made-for-TV movie "First Time Felon" at the Senator Theater, Gibson took her around at a reception in honor of the actor and filmmaker, Charles "Roc" Dutton. The two, side by side, mingled and chatted with the crowd of political, business and union leaders who were sipping drinks and eating crab balls and freshly carved beef.

Three years ago, Gibson's connections, energy and experience were at the disposal of Glendening: He and Schmoke endorsed Glendening in the governor's race over two Baltimore-area state senators.

Gibson said yesterday that endorsement was made at some risk, and only after a series of commitments by Glendening.

"When he was very low in the polls in this area, we went out on a limb to endorse him," Gibson said. "We had an absolute, iron-clad agreement that he would, during his first term in office, make as a top priority state assumption of the costs of the circuit court, register of wills and state's attorney's office.

"There were no ifs, ands or buts. And none of the commitments have been met," Gibson said.

Governor doesn't comment

Glendening, through his press secretary, declined to comment. Oegerle, his campaign treasurer, said she doubted that any such commitments were made.

"The governor and the mayor are striving to make Maryland a better place to live," she said, "and I'm sure they discuss at length how they can work together, but mayors and governors don't cut deals. Any implication that they cut deals is flatly erroneous."

Gibson said an earlier disagreement between Schmoke and Glendening over slot machines led to Gibson's belief that the governor did not deserve the city's backing in 1998.

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