THERE'S something in Maryland politics that desperately needs fixing -- the way lieutenant governor candidates are selected.
Generally, the selection process has little to do with experience, competence or even compatibility with the gubernatorial candidates. Rather, they are selected simply to comply with state law.
Recall the comic opera of Lt. Gov. Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg. He was turned down three times before ending up with retiring State Sen. James C. Simpson of Southern Maryland.
Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening picked a candidate whose only apparent qualification for the office is her middle name: Kennedy -- which brings with it, by the way, the family money belt. Her other two names, incidentally, are Kathleen and Townsend. Get the picture?
Next, Republican Rep. Helen Delich Bentley was turned down by a half-dozen possible understudies -- Anne Arundel County Executive Robert Neall said no twice -- before she persuaded State Sen. Howard A. Denis, of Montgomery County, to join her ticket. The pair disagree philosophically on just about everything from abortion to gun control.
State Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski selected a seat-mate in the Senate, Bernie Fowler, of Calvert County. Mr. Miedusiewski turned down Mr. Steinberg's overtures to join his ticket.
Del. Ellen Sauerbrey, the House minority leader, chose a former police officer, Paul H. Rappaport, as her political partner. And William Shepard, the 1990 Republican nominee, paired up with a Carroll County commissioner, Julia W. Gouge.
Finally, Democratic State Sen. Mary H. Boergers, of Montgomery County, formed Maryland's first all-female ticket by choosing Barbara O. Kreamer, of Harford County, as her look-alike running-mate on both gender and political issues.
What's wrong with these match-ups?
Well, for one thing, they were made to meet the July 5 filing deadline, as required by law. Secondly, the choice is seldom the best or the brightest but one made out of pure political desperation.
The lieutenant governor post was established by an amendment to the state constitution in 1970 after (then-House Speaker) Marvin Mandel was selected by the General Assembly to succeed Gov. Spiro T. Agnew, who became President Nixon's vice president. Many were concerned that voters had no role in the choice.
Blair Lee III, of Montgomery County, then secretary of state, was chosen as Maryland's first lieutenant governor in modern times -- under Mr. Mandel.
Since then, we've had Sam Bogley, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and Mr. Steinberg.
So now we're asked to consider all of the above -- Mr. Simpson, Ms. Townsend, Mr. Fowler, Ms. Kreamer, Mr. Denis, Ms. Gouge and Mr. Rappaport -- none are well-known or has executive experience.
The truth is, however, that people vote for the gubernatorial candidate, not the running-mate.
Yet the process of selecting a running-mate is a time-consuming preoccupation that distracts candidates from issues and the demanding business of campaigning.
The amendment establishing the post -- for all of its original good intentions -- has now been test-driven: It's defective and inneed of fine-tuning. It should be changed to resemble the presidential process, with running-mate selections coming after the primary races.
If this were the case, candidates for governor would be spared a lot of needless commotion and embarrassing publicity. And the public would probably get more experienced lieutenant governor candidates, not just names to fill in the blanks based on gender, geography and celebrity.
Electing a lieutenant governor separately from the governor is problematical, too. For an idiosyncratic state such as Maryland could produce an odd-couple government far worse than the standoff that exists in the State House between Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Mr. Steinberg.
Under the current system, very few people with any substantive government rank are willing to give up a secure position for what amounts to a crap-shoot -- without a job description, yet.
However, the No. 2 post pays $100,000 a year, plus perks. The person who fills the role ought to be qualified to be on call-waiting in case of an emergency in the governor's office.
This year's gubernatorial candidates could do far worse than to campaign to change the lieutenant-governor selection process.
Frank A. DeFilippo writes from Owings Mills.