Tough timing for Glendening Comptroller's death, virtually on the eve of the filing deadline for November election, created an opportunity for the governor either to score political points or to dig himself into a hole.

July 12, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith

The death of Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein has given Marylanders a bittersweet reminder of what they do like about public figures -- and new insights into the political world they mistrust.

What they liked about "Louie," they said over and over, was his reliability and the flinty, knowledgeable independence that crackled under the surface of his smile.

Among the broader truths re-stated since his passing at the age of 85 were these:

Twenty four hours can be a lifetime in politics.

The quality of leadership can sometimes be measured best in crisis.

An incumbent governor has immense power to help himself politically. Handled skillfully, that power is awesome, rooted as we learn anew in the state Constitution: A vacancy in the comptroller's office must be filled by the governor, in this case Parris N. Glendening.

Opportunity and risk were plaited here: do it right, enhance your standing; do it wrong, and watch the world tilt.

Glendening's choice had the potential to dramatically alter this fall's election and to seriously damage the governor's candidacy. On Monday, Glendening named his choice for comptroller and by Thursday his candidate had withdrawn and former Gov. William Donald Schaefer took his place as front-runner. If Schaefer wins the fall election, he could become a rival to Glendening on the Board of Public Works, the state's day-to-day governing body.

Meanwhile, some Marylanders were saying that a Schaefer victory could result in Maryland becoming the first state with two governors. All this conjecture was loosed upon the Free State during a hectic three-day period and the full implications all are yet to be seen.

Timing made Glendening's task more perilous. Goldstein died virtually on the eve of the July 6 filing deadline, leaving the governor to decide if he should fill the post with a political ally or leave it in the hands of an able bureaucrat who could carry on until the voters elect a replacement in November.

Glendening and everyone else drawn into this awkward moment said they were thinking of "Louie" and surely they were.

But the crass, tempting reality was this: Glendening suddenly had an opportunity to have a second running mate, a ticket mate to complement his lieutenant governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. His nominee would be his grateful ally, someone who might help him win votes in an important subdivision; someone who might add zest to his campaign; someone who might even raise money.

At the same time, Glendening was urged not to politicize the decision. If he took the high road, Goldstein's veteran staff could maintain the comptroller's duties: tax collecting, bond selling and the like until Maryland voters make their own choice in this fall's elections.

But apparently Glendening obeyed his political instincts and selected his campaign chairman, Michael D. Barnes, the former congressman from Montgomery County who last ran for office (unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate) 12 years ago.

Glendening's opponents immediately hammered the governor for choosing someone so close politically. Hadn't he robbed the comptroller's office of its constitutional and political independence? They seized the appointment as a case of the boss-governor stepping in to help himself, appropriating the people's prerogative for his own political future.

That fallout was accompanied by questions about the political wisdom of settling on Barnes. While an intelligent, experienced and tough competitor, he has been out of politics for more than a decade -- time enough for even elected officials in Maryland to forget him.

Once the most popular and electable politician in all of highly political Montgomery County, Barnes served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1978 to 1986, where he became an expert in Latin American Affairs. After losing the Senate race, Barnes moved away from public life, although he helped to negotiate the re-instatement of Jean Bertrand Aristide's presidency in Haiti, using his contacts in Congress and in the White House.

But his lack of name recognition in Maryland was immediately exacerbated by the surprise presence of another political legend, comparable in many ways to Goldstein -- Schaefer. He filed his comptroller candidacy 90 minutes before the deadline.

Though involved in a dozen projects, Schaefer chafes for a return to the decision-making arena of government. He told Glendening last weekend that he'd like to be considered for the comptroller's post. The governor said he wanted Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan -- and Schaefer thought that a fine choice. But hours later he learned -- and not from Glendening -- that Barnes was the choice. This after Schaefer -- as he put it -- "stuck my neck out and endorsed him [Glendening]."

A Schaefer associate said Schaefer went into a "nuclear meltdown" -- and his interest in the job accelerated.

The immediate public and political reaction to Schaefer's decision overwhelmed everyone, perhaps even Schaefer.

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