THIS is a tale of two politicians on the make. One went to St. Louis, the other to Little Rock.
One came home from Little Rock with a friend in the White House. The other returned from St. Louis with bittersweet memories of a good buddy who's forced into retirement by the American electorate.
Early on, Mayor Kurt Schmoke was a partisan of Bill Clinton, and his enthusiasm for the Democratic nominee beamed through as the mayor's troops registered new voters and delivered the vote on Election Day.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer was unconvinced and ambivalent, even though he cast his vote for Mr. Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in New York. The two Democratic governors had an arms-length relationship from the beginning, with Mr. Clinton rejecting Mr. Schaefer's endorsement during the primary season and the Maryland governor refusing to accept Mr. Clinton's conciliatory phone calls just before the November election.
Then Mr. Schaefer was sought out by Bush operatives. They'd been working on him for weeks before the governor was finally seduced by the head-rush of a flight on Air Force One and a chance to come to the aid of his faltering friend.
In the adult world of politics, the truth has its consequences. Despite being able to foresee the terrible home-front results of Mr. Schaefer's seditious act, no one in his inner circle of State House aides attempted to dissuade the idiosyncratic governor from flying to St. Louis with his heart on his sleeve. Mr. Schaefer's aides are funny that way. His chief political aide was unaware of the rescue mission and almost certainly would have tried to discourage Mr. Schaefer from making the ill-fated flight.
There's even speculation that Mr. Schaefer had prepared a list of White House largess that Maryland would receive in return for his endorsement, like the one he sent to Washington when Jimmy Carter was dispensing federal dollars after his defeat in 1980.
But Maryland voters thumbed their noses at Mr. Schaefer as if to validate their love-hate relationship with the madcap governor. Meanwhile, Mayor Schmoke's riding the crest of Mr. Clinton's victory, and now there's talk of a high Clinton administration appointment for the mayor. (Mr. Schmoke insists he's interested only in remaining as mayor of Baltimore while there's a Democrat in the White House who understands the problems of the cities.)
And therein lies a major question about Mr. Schaefer's quirky behavior. The governor supports a strong urban policy. President Bush has no urban program to speak of. Mr. Schaefer signed Maryland's liberal abortion law despite personal misgivings. Mr. Bush is stridently anti-abortion and in the bosom of the full-mooner Christian coalition of evangelist Pat Robertson. Mr. Schaefer fought for the toughest gun-control law in the nation. Mr. Bush has opposed every effort to restrict guns. The list of spectacular contradictions goes on.
Mr. Schaefer now says he'll work with the Clinton administration. The real question is whether the Clinton administration will work with the governor. Mr. Schaefer feels confident that with Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski in key positions, he'll have all of the political leverage he needs in Washington.
But remember, the two senators were among the first to condemn what they consider Mr. Schaefer's treasonous act. And for days following the smile-and-dagger deed, party activists pummeled Mr. Schaefer with threats of censure as well as an attempt to strip him of his epaulets as honorary head of the state's Democrats. But when showdown time arrived, the State Democratic Central Committee backed away and defeated the resolution of censure by a vote of 186 to 171.
Mr. Schaefer's endorsement of the president probably has no long-range consequences for Maryland. But Mr. Schmoke's support of Mr. Clinton most certainly does.
The immediate world is painfully aware of Mr. Schaefer's intense dislike for Mayor Schmoke. But what Mr. Clinton's election did was shift the center of state politics from Annapolis back to Baltimore. It's Mayor Schmoke's phone number that President Clinton will have in his Rolodex.
On election night, Mr. Schmoke was among the thousands of party animals invited to celebrate Mr. Clinton's victory in Little Rock, his 50,000-watt victory smile beaming back to Baltimore television stations via satellite. No doubt the Maryland governor was watching, and the Schmoke smile said, "Gottcha!"
So the next time you hear of a Maryland politician being invited to the White House or Camp David, he'll be named Schmoke and not Schaefer. It's the price the governor paid for taking the wrong flight to the wrong city.
Frank A. DeFilippo writes on Maryland politics.