With just a hint of mortar on his new high-top work boots, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin dropped his trowel at lunch time yesterday, stepped carefully onto a wooden ladder and scrambled down to meet reporters on the upper deck of downtown Baltimore's new baseball stadium.
Having worked as a bricklayer's apprentice for more than two hours, presidential candidate Harkin declared himself more sensitive to the needs of America's workingmen -- and of the United States itself -- than he could ever have been as a Washington-bound politician without that experience.
"These are the kinds of jobs we need more of in America," the Iowa Democrat said, "jobs building things of lasting value for this country, whether it's a stadium here in Baltimore or a mass transit system in New York or Los Angeles or Washington, D.C."
If the 51-year-old candidate's effort yesterday was a gimmick to draw media attention, it was not a new one adopted for his presidential campaign. Mr. Harkin first started scheduling "work days" in the early 1970s when he was running for Congress in Iowa.
Senator Harkin said he regards the March 3 Maryland presidential primary as quite significant since it comes relatively early in the process and could offer candidates important opportunities to showcase their proposals. Yesterday was his second campaign appearance in Maryland, and he said his campaign may install its national headquarters in Bethesda.
"Maryland is going to play a big role next year," he said, observing that its primary comes quickly after the heretofore more famous Iowa caucuses and the Feb. 18 New Hampshire primary. "Maryland is a good state. It represents a good cross section of the American people," he said yesterday.
Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, who was the first prominent Democrat to declare his candidacy, already has visited Maryland. And Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who is expected to enter the race, was in Prince George's County on Monday evening. Governor Clinton said he will make his intentions clear by the end of this month.
A primary date falling before the March 10 Super Tuesday and 1992 presidential campaigns that may be characterized by low budgets make Maryland an even more useful source of quick campaign "hits" -- particularly for U.S. senators who live in or near Washington, D.C.
Democrats in Maryland are exultant at the prospect of having an impact on the national race.
"It gives Democratic voters in Maryland more impact on the nomination," said Delegate James C. Rosapepe, D-Prince George's, "because a candidate who does well here will get some attention."
"We'll see a lot more of the candidates," said state Democratic Party Chairman Nathan Landow after Mr. Clinton's visit earlier in the week. "It could get Democrats excited again about the party. It'll be a tremendous boost."
Mr. Harkin got a boost yesterday from both baseball and bricklaying. He spent the morning with Bernie Smith, a bearded veteran of 25 years in the trowel trades. The two men worked on a scaffold 80 feet above the ground on the last section of the
new stadium's brick facade, the one nearest the south end of the old B&O; Railroad warehouse.
Mr. Smith showed the candidate how to slather on just the right amount of mortar, how to slide the brick into place, how to keep the lines straight, how to polish the work. Asked if he thought the candidate had any talent for the trade, Mr.Smith said, "No comment" -- and laughed.
"He's not doing bad for a greenhorn," said Charles E. Smith, the brick foreman.
What the candidate heard from workers, such as Bob Peterson of Abdingdon, went like this: "We got to get more work."
While they make $18.50 per hour plus benefits, only about 110 of his union's 700 members are working now. Yesterday, the men worked under signs that said "Building With Pride Since 1864."
While lauding the unions and the importance of such work in America, Mr. Harkin seemed anxious to keep some distance between himself and organized labor.
"I want to make it clear I am not the candidate of organized labor," he said. What he wants to be, he said, is "a candidate for working people."
Then, unwrapping a turkey and cheese on whole wheat, he sat down to make his case.