If Melvin A. Steinberg had not been born too late for vaudeville, the Maryland political scene might have missed one of its best-known comedians.
The witty, 57-year-old lieutenant governor has been leaving them chuckling at the State House for 25 years, from his days as a state senator from Baltimore County to his current tenure as second-in-command to Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
But, if timing is important in comedy, it is everything in politics -- and it's no joke now that Steinberg is moving closer to formalizing his candidacy to succeed Schaefer when the governor's second and last term ends in 1994.
While his gubernatorial ambitions are no secret, "Mickey," as he is known to everyone around him, hasn't been eager to broadcast his intentions.
"You can peak too early," he said recently, noting that voters can grow weary of an elected official who spends his time running for a higher office more than three years before election time.
A combination of recent events, however, is forcing Steinberg to speak more openly about his still-unofficial campaign for governor. The campaign now includes preliminary planning for a golf fund-raiser in June -- Steinberg's first effort to raise money for the governor's race.
One factor that appears to be emboldening Steinberg is a falling-out he had with the governor over his ill-fated $800 million tax package. While Schaefer wanted to push the General Assembly to approve the entire package, Steinberg argued privately against that strategy and said the administration would be lucky to get any new taxes this year.
When the tax bill came up for a legislative hearing earlier this month, the two men agreed to keep their disagreement quiet, sources said. Schaefer agreed that Steinberg -- his point man in the legislature -- would not have to testify and that Schaefer would argue for the tax bill himself. Steinberg, in turn, was supposed to keep mum about his reasons for not testifying.
So, Schaefer reportedly was furious when Steinberg told reporters that he was not going to testify and stated his reasons. After the governor read of Steinberg's comments, he publicly accused his lieutenant governor of "stabbing me in the back."
State House observers wondered aloud if the incident represented Steinberg's first major step to distance himself from a governor intent upon levying controversial new taxes on the state.
The tax dispute was not the only factor causing Steinberg to accelerate his campaign plans.
At about the same time of the tax-bill hearing, word reached Steinberg that supporters of other would-be gubernatorial candidates like Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening were beginning to plan fund-raising events that could draw attention away from him.
Steinberg's own backers -- and there are plenty -- urged him to move ahead with his still unofficial campaign. He agreed and scheduled the golf fund-raiser for June.
"Since there are people out there working for potential candidates, I figure I have to do something," he said.
Steinberg insisted that his differences with Schaefer over the tax bill were philosophical and not political, but some administration insiders are skeptical.
One close Schaefer aide suggested that Steinberg had acted solely for his own political good and said the tax disagreement was "the cleanest sign that he was, in fact, beginning to make a break with the governor."
"Parting with the governor is one thing," said the aide. "But
saying that the governor is wrong is another. Mickey is a classic Annapolis politician and there are a lot of them left. They just don't care" about anything but their own political futures.
Steinberg said he will not purposely undermine administration objectives. "I don't want to make an artificial break," he said.
The periodic rifts between the two men, he insisted, occur because each sees the legislative process through different eyes. Steinberg, a former Senate president who is viewed as one of the best consensus-builders in the State House, said the governor has not learned how to deal effectively with the legislature.
"He just will not accept the system," he said.
Steinberg has tried to make light of his strained relationship with Schaefer lately by remarking on it in a joking tone. He playfully complained that the governor treats him as just another Cabinet member who can be fired if he fails to take orders. The governor, Steinberg added, forgets that Steinberg holds a constitutional office with "a four-year, no-cut contract" with voters.
"He can cut me out of his inner circle," Steinberg continued. "And if he cuts me out any more, he'll elect me the next governor."
This is said in jest, of course, but Steinberg's comments about how Schaefer treats him, made both privately and in public, could get him into more hot water with the governor, said several Schaefer aides.
His wit, funny as it is at times, could also wear thin on the public, observers say.
"Mickey enjoys the role of clown prince," said one insider who suggested that Steinberg "would've made a helluva song-and-dance man."
"He likes to kibitz," he continued. "He likes to have fun. He enjoys life. But most of his constituents only want to see so much of that."
Even Steinberg's own family sometimes tires of the spontaneous one-liners and anecdotes, admitted his wife, Anita, who is solidly backing her husband's bid to be governor.
"We turn him off sometimes at home," she conceded. "Sometimes when he starts, we just turn him off."
Steinberg defended his humor, saying it is a useful tool to calm enemies and to make friends. "You're effective down here if people like you," he said.
Just how helpful Steinberg's schtick might be on the gubernatorial campaign trail remains to be seen. Asked if Steinberg would be taken seriously as a candidate or a character, one longtime associate said it might not matter.
"I think he's well known as both," said Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Balto. Co. "You can't take away the fact that he has one of the keenest senses of humor around. It's fun to have a few characters left."