LET'S GIVE Theodore G. "Ted" Venetoulis his due. Smart, smooth and strategic-minded, he has recently taken center stage as the prime planner and coordinator of the Steinberg for Governor campaign. In fact, the much-talked-about move is one of the better hires Mr. Steinberg has made. It gives his campaign instant, new credibility, and in some ways supplants weakness for strength.
It pairs a seemingly old-fashioned (even antiquated) pol best-known for back-room deals with a youthful-looking yet experienced analyst whose strength is the media.
It brings together a candidate whom some teachers regard as anathema, and a strategist whose political campaigns featured a volunteer army of teachers.
The deal with Mr. Steinberg is not a one-shot enterprise for Mr. Venetoulis. He's starting a full-fledged, full-time, locally oriented political consulting firm -- the kind operating most places, it seems, except Maryland. For Mr. Venetoulis, it is the latest direction in a fascinating, multi-faceted career that began with teaching and political writing, moved into campaign managing (William Donald Schaefer's first mayoral race), shifted into an upset, beat-the-machine reform candidacy for Baltimore County executive, segued into successful newspaper publishing, and came most often to our attention through 15 years as a thoughtful, up-beat political analyst on WBAL television.
It's also been a career with its share of stunning successes and major flops. In 1976, Mr. Venetoulis managed Jerry Brown's surprise sweep over Jimmy Carter in Maryland's Democratic presidential primary. Two years later, Mr. Venetoulis got a bit carried away with his own ability to produce electoral magic and lost in a crowded primary field for governor.
A predecessor, Spiro T. Agnew, had won one term as Baltimore County Executive, swept into the State House as governor, and got transferred onto the national scene. The more talented Mr. Venetoulis may have thought he could do as well. He didn't, and hasn't run for office since.
Lately, he's suffered embarrassing setbacks in the highly competitive printing industry; he and his company have both been tossed into bankruptcy. But, with healthy fees from Mr. Steinberg's campaign and a few county executive and congressional races, plus healthy commissions picked up from those campaigns' big media buys, Mr. Venetoulis may be back on his financial feet fairly fast.
Starting a political consulting career at this point in his life is testament to Mr. Venetoulis's resilience, resourcefulness and adaptability. It also makes more than a little sense. He goes back to something he clearly loves in an area where he knows just about everyone and everything. And, above all else, he grasps the limits and power of political media better than probably anybody in Maryland today.
That may be the ultimate irony. For the last half-dozen years, Mr. Venetoulis has found it tough getting his telegenic mug on the TV screen. News directors and station managers figured viewers to be more interested in garden-variety murders than in ever-changing Maryland politics. Politically oriented TV talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Larry King gained immense popularity nationally. Yet, Baltimore TV executives failed to appreciate, even during active political periods, how local political coverage could be their stations' signatures. Now, when Maryland politics becomes more compelling than it has in a decade and a half, Mr. Venetoulis will probably have to steer clear of the TV studio. Viewers, after all, are entitled to impartial analysis.
Using some of the same skills, though, Mr. Venetoulis has devised a plausible campaign strategy that positions Mr. Steinberg as the most conservative of the Democratic contenders for governor, and that charts the lieutenant governor's route to victory: He cleans up in his home base of Baltimore County, more or less concedes Prince George's County (Parris Glendening's native turf), respectably acquits himself in heavy-voting Montgomery County -- and goes over the top in the often taken-for-granted rest of the state (Eastern Shore, Western Maryland and central Maryland), where 25 percent of the voters are located.
Mr. Venetoulis's undoing could yet be Montgomery County, where Mr. Glendening's message and style are both bound to be big favorites. But Mr. Venetoulis does have the authority to call the shots for the Steinberg campaign, which is a good thing; somebody needs to be able to make decisions, and have them hew to the master plan. And, perhaps even more important, somebody needs to carve out a cleaner campaign -- one that doesn't try to deceive the media with incomplete, misleading poll results showing Mr. Steinberg with a commanding Montgomery County lead, that keeps over-zealous, heavy-handed supporters like Del. Richard Rynd (D-Baltimore County) from trying to drive others out of the race and that shows a principled candidate who wants to be governor and won't do or say anything just to make it happen.
Mr. Venetoulis takes over a campaign that has made some progress. It has put money in the bank and created a loyal network of state legislators with whom Mr. Steinberg has schmoozed and worked over the years. Now, the key for him is whether certain Democrats fulfill his hopes, and leave the field to him.
Will Mayor Kurt Schmoke keep up his gubernatorial bluff only long enough to gain maximum advantage with the General Assembly? Or, failing that, will he now realize that campaigning in Montgomery County on his Baltimore "record" holds him up to public ridicule?
Will Attorney General Joe Curran gracefully withdraw, acknowledging that he lacks the money-raising capability to compete with the big boys, that he wins only if Messrs. Glendening and Steinberg bloody each other up and he's the only one left standing?
Mr. Venetoulis isn't the only great political strategist at work this election year. John Willis, who toils for Mr. Glendening, guarantees that 1994 will be a campaign season full of moves and counter moves. And it should remind us all that state politics, for all its serious, human consequences, can be as entertaining, exciting, and frustrating as an Orioles pennant stretch in September.
Bruce L. Bortz is editor of the Maryland Report newsletter. He writes on Maryland politics every other Thursday for Other Voices.