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Donald Hutchinson: A candidacy that almost was


Donald P. Hutchinson has always wanted to be the governor of Maryland. Even in 1986, when he ran for a U.S. Senate seat before dropping out of a tough field, he seemed more attracted to the State House than to Capitol Hill.

There was a gubernatorial race that year, too, but that was the beginning of the Age of the Other Donald -- William Donald Schaefer -- and only Stephen H. Sachs, the attorney general, had the temerity to try to delay its dawning.

It's eight years later now, and the sun is slowly setting on Mr. Schaefer. Four Democrats are battling for the nomination of their party, none of them Mr. Hutchinson, who wanted it as much as anyone. Instead, Mr. Hutchinson is sitting on the sidelines, no doubt wondering about what might have been. Last week, for the second time in less than a year, he took a calculated walk.

A calculated walk is the opposite of a calculated risk. Twenty years ago, as a younger man with fewer responsibilities, Mr. Hutchinson took a calculated risk, boldly challenging James A. Pine, the aging Baltimore County Democratic boss, for his state Senate seat.

In 1978, four years after ousting Mr. Pine, Mr. Hutchinson rolled the dice again, leaping into a wide open race for Baltimore County executive and defeating four strong Democratic rivals for the nomination. He was 32. He went on to serve two terms.

After leaving office in December 1986, Mr. Hutchinson entered the private sector, becoming president of the newly formed Maryland Business Council in 1991.

Then came 1993, a year of decision for Mr. Hutchinson. He was no longer a 28-year-old upstart taking on Jim Pine. And a big job was opening up, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, the area's pre-eminent business organization.

He went after the post, which pays $165,000 a year. The GBC was looking for someone for the long haul. A wary search committee asked if he was planning to run for governor in 1994. This is how the gubernatorial race was shaping up last summer when Mr. Hutchinson was pondering his answer:

* Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was expected to enter the race and become a front runner for the Democratic nomination.

* Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, whose political base is in the Pikesville section of Baltimore County, was already in the race and looked formidable.

* Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., whose base is in Northeast Baltimore, was talking about running for governor.

* In suburban Washington, Parris N. Glendening, the Prince George's County executive, was putting together a campaign organization and seemed capable of taking advantage of a badly split vote in the Baltimore region.

Mr. Hutchinson told the GBC leaders he was theirs. He was named president Aug. 27, 1993.

This is what happened next:

* On Sept. 7, Attorney General Curran said he liked his job too much and would run for re-election.

* On Sept. 20, Mr. Schmoke said he had unfinished business in Baltimore and would not be running for governor.

* Mr. Steinberg's campaign went into a months-long tailspin that brought him within hours of last week's candidate's filing deadline without the lieutenant governor running mate required of all gubernatorial aspirants.

Over the past month, as Mr. Steinberg's miscues intensified, Mr. Hutchinson began re-thinking his earlier decision not to run. Associates quietly began drumming up support and re-evaluating the field.

Mr. Hutchinson almost did it. He lined up a running mate, former Montgomery County congressman Michael D. Barnes, a choice that would lend the ticket a statewide flavor.

But he walked away again.

In the days leading up to the filing deadline, Mr. Hutchinson crunched the numbers, decided that even a badly wounded Mr. Steinberg took too many votes from him to win.

Over the July 4th holiday, Hutchinson emissaries tried to talk Mr. Steinberg out of the race. Mr. Steinberg stayed in, Mr. Hutchinson stayed out.

Back in 1977, Mr. Hutchinson, then a 31-year-old state Senate backbencher, had it right.

"The key to politics is being in the right place at the right time and knowing it," he said. "You can be there and not know it and blow it."

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