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Not just another Joe?


STATE SEN. American Joe Miedusiewski may be lagging in the polls but when it comes to having fun he's clearly the front-runner in the race for governor.

Mr. Miedusiewski's been applauded by the Chamber of Commerce for his generally conservative views and he's been booed by the Maryland Municipal League -- comprised of municipal governments -- for promising fiscal restraint if he's elected.

He's tagged Lt. Gov. Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg as a blast from the past in an open letter that urges his fellow Democrat to withdraw from the race.

He's run a series of wicked radio ads mimicking the political communion of Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening as "The Love Team."

In another radio commercial done in the style of TV's "Dragnet" detective Joe Friday, Mr. Miedusiewski accuses Mr. Glendening of "exaggerating his resume" by claiming to have been a police commissioner. Mr. Glendening was a member of Hyattsville's board of commissioners with oversight responsibility for the police department.

So where does Mr. Miedusiewski get off with such bodacious behavior?

Well, for one thing, he's convinced he can win despite the polls showing his statewide standing at a benign 7 percent. And, for another, he views (correctly) the competition for governor as a struggle between the Baltimore region and Maryland's Washington suburbs.

Mr. Miedusiewski believes that Mr. Glendening is extremely vulnerable in the Baltimore area. Thus, his entreaty to Mr. Steinberg to step aside and let the Polish tavern owner from East Baltimore do the heavy lifting for Baltimore.

As recently as three weeks ago, Mr. Steinberg was negotiating with American Joe to be his understudy as lieutenant governor. In fact, Mr. Steinberg's operatives were convinced they had Mr. Miedusiewski under contract for the number two job.

So the protocol standoff between the two appears to confirm the painfully obvious -- the Baltimore area cannot support two Democratic candidates without yielding the appearance of front-runner status to Mr. Glendening. If either Mr. Steinberg or Mr. Miedusiewski were to withdraw by the July 15 deadline, the odds would shift dramatically to the remaining Baltimore candidate.

There is, too, the audible buzz that if Mr. Glendening wins the Democratic nomination much of the party's rear guard in Baltimore will defect to Republican Rep. Helen Bentley if she's her party's nominee.

That could be offset, though, by the determination of suburban Washington ministers of influence to break Baltimore's iron grip on statewide politics by electing their first governor in modern times. The last was Oden Bowie of Prince George's County, in 1867.

To offset his numerical deficits, however, Mr. Miedusiewski has been searching out undecided voters (31 percent), delivering his staunchly populist mantras on public safety, education and welfare reform.

As if to underline his outreach, Mr. Miedusiewski has chosen as his running-mate state Sen. Bernie Fowler, of Calvert County.

It was a move calculated to burnish his candidacy in benighted areas such as Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

And to prop up the financial side of his campaign, Mr. Miedusiewski plans to apply for as much as $340,000 in state matching funds, available for the first (and probably the last) time.

Early in this campaign season, Gov. William Donald Schaefer issued a frenetic call for a few good candidates to run against his outcast lieutenant governor, Mr. Steinberg. Mr. Miedusiewski took the battle cry seriously and was among the first to volunteer. After 20 years in the state Senate, Mr. Miedusiewski decided it was time to move up.

And, on top of it all, American Joe's having one terrific time of it.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes from Owings Mills on Maryland politics.

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