Veteran campaigner joins the fray once again Politics: Larry Gibson's latest gubernatorial effort targets incumbent -- whom he helped get elected

November 09, 1997|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Larry S. Gibson, in shirtsleeves and suspenders, sits down at his dining room table after a full day of campaigning and sifts through a heap of mail-back questionnaires about his candidate for governor, Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann.

Hunched over a bowl of homemade gumbo and a beer, he scours each card for what Maryland Democrats are saying about Rehrmann and her primary challenge next year to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the candidate Gibson helped elect in 1994.

These are the early returns from Gibson's first push as Rehrmann's campaign manager -- pricey orange, white and blue campaign literature mailed last month to 285,000 Democratic voters to increase her name recognition.

Gibson insisted that the fliers have response cards to ensure he had first-person impressions about Rehrmann and Glendening, albeit from a very unscientific sample.

"Insiders can't get it right," Gibson explains. "That's why I do so much campaigning on the street, because what matters most is what the real people are saying."

The penchant for detail is typical of Gibson, who has helped engineer wins for such candidates as Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, for whom he is political strategist and confidant, and Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry.

Gibson now is bringing his talents to the Rehrmann camp, where only time will answer the question of whether he has the right stuff to defeat a sitting governor in a Democratic primary.

It is, by anyone's estimation, an uphill battle. But Rehrmann believes that if anyone can do it, Gibson can, and she has moved him from informal consultant to campaign manager.

Gibson has a hands-on, at times frenetic, style of campaigning. In the Rehrmann effort, this has meant such things as launching and accompanying her on a monthlong tour of the state, personally introducing her to scores of voters at shopping malls and handing out her literature for hours on downtown Baltimore street corners.

"He's a great grass-roots campaigner," Rehrmann said. "He's one of the best political strategists I've ever seen."

While his primary role is to direct the troops -- which he has a tendency to do in a full-control way -- he is also out there raising money and corralling support for his candidate from an extensive network he has built over the years.

Energy

Gibson expended the same kind of energy helping to elect Glendening the last time, and for his effort was singled out by Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey as a key reason for her loss to the governor by 5,993 votes. She alleged that Gibson was the mastermind behind massive vote fraud in the city, charges that were never proven and which he angrily denies.

Gibson, 55, a Baltimore native, is a lawyer with offices in the city at Shapiro and Olander, the politically well-connected firm founded by his close friend and Schmoke crony, Ronald M. Shapiro. The position affords Gibson a walled home in the affluent North Baltimore neighborhood of Guilford, where he lives with his wife, Diana, and accommodates his lifestyle, which includes passions for world travel and scuba diving.

Their son, Steven, is a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, though he occasionally will show up on the campaign trail with his father.

A full plate

Gibson is a University of Maryland law professor, a former associate deputy attorney general in the Carter administration, a hobnobber with mayors, governors and presidents. Most recently, he chaired Schmoke's Baltimore Bicentennial Celebration Inc., a nonprofit endeavor promoting the city that was underwritten by $1.3 million Gibson raised from the business community.

But politics seems to be the fuel that drives the Gibson engine.

"He's obsessive about politics," said former Baltimore City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who lost twice to the Gibson machine, most recently in a bitter race against Schmoke in the 1995 mayoral election.

"He loves the game. It's like living chess for him," Clarke said. "He lives and breathes these campaigns. I think he enjoys the politics more than he is interested in government."

For the 1998 political game, Gibson has defected from the Glendening camp. Some observers say that he was looking for another candidate primarily as a way around Glendening's anti-gambling stand, in an attempt to bring legalized slot machines to Baltimore.

Others suggest Gibson is using the Rehrmann campaign as a trial run for a possible future candidate, such as Curry, shooting for statewide office.

Gibson maintains, however, that the answer is simple.

"I believe Parris Glendening has very little chance of beating Ellen Sauerbrey," he said, referring to the likely GOP nominee next year. "If we don't fire Glendening, Sauerbrey will."

GOP inroads

Gibson said he is concerned that the GOP could make further inroads in the makeup of the General Assembly with Glendening leading the Democratic ticket.

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