Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg's campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, plagued by staff departures and organizational problems for months, suffered another severe setback yesterday when his campaign manager abruptly quit.
Michael F. Ford, Mr. Steinberg's top political strategist since December, confirmed last night that he had resigned. He declined to discuss any details of his leave-taking.
Mr. Ford, a veteran political consultant based in the Annapolis area, was brought into the campaign to replace Theodore G. Venetoulis, the ex-Baltimore County executive, who was fired by Mr. Steinberg in October after less than five months on the job.
The precise reasons for Mr. Ford's departure were not immediately clear. A source close to the campaign said he had tried to resign before but was persuaded by Mr. Steinberg to remain.
Attempts to reach Mr. Steinberg last night were unsuccessful. His lieutenant governor running mate since Tuesday, state Sen. James C. Simpson of Charles County, did not know of Mr. Ford's resignation until informed by a reporter last night, hours after it had occurred.
Mr. Simpson insisted that Mr. Ford's resignation was "no big loss," adding, "It's a sign we're on the right track. I don't think this guy's the right guy for us."
But other political observers -- including supporters of Mr. Steinberg -- were saying the campaign is in disarray and appears less capable of correcting its problems with each passing day.
Mr. Ford, according to several sources, was angry Tuesday when Mr. Steinberg did not vigorously oppose former state Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly's last-minute decision not to join the ticket as his running mate, necessitating an embarrassing last-minute switch to Mr. Simpson.
"Ford told me I had a commitment; I had to go through with it anyhow," Mr. O'Reilly said last night. Mr. O'Reilly decided not to run for lieutenant governor because of ethical concerns relating to his own new position as a member of the quasi-judicial Workers' Compensation Commission.
Dennis C. Donaldson, who announced Tuesday he would wage his own campaign for a state Senate seat, was Mr. Steinberg's first campaign manager, but stepped aside to a less senior position when Mr. Venetoulis joined the campaign in spring 1993.
By October, however, Mr. Steinberg and Mr. Venetoulis had a bitter falling-out, resulting in Mr. Venetoulis being fired and the two men suing each other. That dispute was settled in early May with Mr. Steinberg agreeing to pay $42,500 to Mr. Venetoulis.
By December, Mr. Steinberg's first campaign press secretary, Diane Reis, who was brought in by Mr. Venetoulis, left the campaign.
In the wake of the Venetoulis dispute, the campaign treaded water for weeks while undergoing organizational changes, led by Mr. Ford. He assembled four political professionals in January to handle the day-to-day operations of the campaign -- but by April, all but press secretary Dan Walter had quit.
In early March, Kevin Mack, the No. 2 man in the Steinberg campaign organization, resigned. By mid-April, two more of Mr. Ford's hires had left: Darrel L. Thompson, the field director, and Sarah Busch, the scheduler.