It must be autumn. Leaves are turning. Geese are flying. And, of course, there's that seasonal frost on the relationship between Gov. William Donald Schaefer and his second-in-command, Lt. Gov. Melvin A. "Mickey" Steinberg.
The two men have never been great pals, State House insiders say. Periodic rifts between the two have been common in the nearly four years they have been in Annapolis as the state's two highest public officials.
"It happens every fall," notes one source close to the men.
But these days, insiders suggest, the gap between the two men is wide enough to parallel park the "Do It Now" bus, the full-sized, Diesel-powered behemoth the governor sometimes uses to cruise around the state.
Although both Schaefer and Steinberg have attempted to downplay the latest rift -- which would reflect poorly on an effort to appear united in their bid for a second term in Annapolis -- insiders say Steinberg has grown increasingly weary over how he has been treated both in the campaign and in the Schaefer administration.
When the pair ran for office four years ago, the two were promoted as a team with Steinberg's name and picture often getting equal prominence with Schaefer's.
Under the Schaefer-Steinberg Campaign for Maryland's 1990 re-election effort, the lieutenant governor is noticeably missing from most of the media hullabaloo orchestrated by the campaign staff.
On early fund-raiser tickets, only Schaefer's name was mentioned. Steinberg is missing from Schaefer's television ads and from most of the campaign posters and placards.
"It's so startling now," says Steinberg, "because four years ago it was 100 percent. This year it's like 25 percent."
The curious case of the missing running mate was most obvious at the Schaefer-Steinberg primary election celebration hall in Baltimore where about 60 photographs of the governor -- most of them bigger than life -- were stapled and taped on walls and tables. Steinberg's picture was displayed 14 times.
When the two men finally arrived to claim victory that night, Schaefer took the stage without Steinberg.
Steinberg supporters say privately that the lieutenant governor has been snubbed intentionally by Schaefer and his inner circle of supporters, who jealously regard the governor as the only one who should get the credit for the administration's accomplishments.
"There is little room in that galaxy for another planet," said one Steinberg friend.
On the other hand, Schaefer supporters suggest Steinberg has a not-so-hidden agenda of seeking the governor's seat in 1994. And, as a result of that, they continue, Steinberg has been slow to do his part in raising money for the 1990 campaign warchest -- already bulging with more than $2 million -- because they say he wants to reserve the resources for his own gubernatorial race
The latest coolness between the two men blew chillingly into the public sector a week ago when Steinberg chastised the Campaign for Maryland staff for setting up a fund-raising arm under his name without his knowledge or permission.
Steinberg described as "overkill" the attempt to raise additional money from contributors who already had given to Schaefer's Reflections treasury. He said he would be help raise money, but requested that the name of the new Citizens for Steinberg be changed.
Jim Smith, Schaefer's campaign manager, said this week that the name of the group remains the same.
"It wasn't a pressing matter," he said, adding that no fund-raising events are planned under Steinberg's name alone. Steinberg says that if that's the case, he considers the issue resolved.
But by itself, that was not enough to quiet talk in the the State House that the Schaefer-Steinberg relationship is cold.
The two have seldom been seen together during the campaign, although campaign staffers say the reason is because the two can cover more ground by going separate routes.
But observers have noted that at campaign stops the governor seldom even mentions his running mate.
A campaign "zip trip" through Howard County earlier this week was unusual because Schaefer and Steinberg, accompanied by other Democratic candidates, traveled together.
Not until late in the day, when the governor spoke to a group of senior citizens living in Columbia, did Schaefer attempt to praise his running mate.
"When we ran together four years ago," he told the gathering, "we ran with one objective -- that we'd all have something to do because lieutenant governors usually don't do anything. They're never assigned anything."
Laughter greeted his words. "That's a bad thing to say," he said, and then started anew. "Lieutenant governors don't do anything. . . ," he tried again without finishing his sentence.
Seconds later he credited Steinberg with helping the administration pass important legislation. "We've made a good team," he said, "and we want to continue on."
For his part, Steinberg acknowledges the latest round of rift gossip. But he attributes most of it to political sniping.
"Let's say this, I'm not naive," he says. "A lot of people would like to knock me off as a potential candidate. I understand that."
Despite widespread speculation that he will run for governor in 1994, Steinberg says it is too early to discuss the possibility. The current race, he says, is too important -- even more important than his ego.
"I'm going to do everything possible to see that Schaefer-Steinberg wins," he says. "If it means minimizing Steinberg's visual name recognition or commentaries in the media, so what? I want Governor Schaefer to be re-elected. The next step will be the next step. Whatever that step will be."
Nevertheless, Steinberg's frustration with his lack of visibility in campaign posters and ads is apparent.
"If I was running on a separate lever, I would be very, very concerned," he says. "Very concerned," he continues, "because people may not take the time to push my lever down.
On the matter of being accused by Schaefer's closest supporters of trying to intrude into the limelight on administration accomplishments, Steinberg suggests that the loyalty of the governor's people can be overzealous.
"There are a lot of people who are frustrated that I don't have a chain that they can pull," he says.
"I tell them," he adds, "don't you understand? Would you want a lieutenant governor that's constantly being blasted by the papers as a do-nothing guy, as a total yo-yo?"
Steinberg says he is trying to balance the responsibilities of his part on the Schaefer team with the needs of his future.
"I believe that you can be compatible," he says, "but Melvin Steinberg has to be his own person. He has to maintain his integrity and his personality."
Just how much the rifts -- past and current -- have bothered him personally, Steinberg won't tell.
Longtime Steinberg friend and business partner Del. Richard Rynd, D-City, says the frosty relationships have had their toll.
"He is sensitive about it and he has been hurt," says Rynd. "But he's a man and I think he'll have a good relationship with the governor even with all that has happened. The governor needs to trust him more because Mickey is the kind of guy who would not do anything underhanded to hurt the governor."
If the gap between the two continues, notes Rynd, "Mickey's going to have to take his own road."