What State and Democrats Need is a Good Boss


Call it what you will, a hankering for the bad old days or just plain nostalgia, but if Irv Kovens or Jack Pollack were alive today the Democratic Party and Maryland politics in general wouldn't be in the sorry mess they're in.

For the truth is that what Maryland politics lacks since the death of Mr. Kovens four years ago is a central intelligence. When Mr. Kovens died in 1990, he left an estate of functions that no one has stepped forward to claim -- because nobody wants the job or can do it.

This is not a lament for the passing of bossism. Nor is it an exercise in political taxidermy. But a look in the rear-view mirror shows that the concept of politics as an extended family surely beats what's out there now.

The conventional wisdom is that political bosses are deader than pterodactyls. And if this is the case, so, too, are political parties and party discipline. They're been replaced by fax machines, e-mail, radio talk-show hosts, the omnipresent television camera, the religious right, the academic left and the parliament of the permanently disgruntled.

In Maryland there are really four Democratic parties: the Baltimore area party, the Washington suburban party, the white Democratic Party and the black Democratic Party. And there's no mustard-cutter around to pull them together. By comparison, Republicans generally tend to stick together if only because there just aren't enough of them to make a major difference. Except in a year as fractured as this.

If anecdotal evidence is needed, consider this: The state's two top elected Democrats, Gov. William Donald Schaefer and his outcast lieutenant governor, Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg, have both hinted that they'll vote Republican in November if things don't go their way in next month's primary. And the party chairwoman, Baltimore Councilwoman Vera Hall, has compromised her neutrality in the gubernatorial primary by denouncing state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski for those wickedly playful radio commercials he's running.

A mere four and eight years ago, Mr. Kovens' strong arm was able to reach out across the state and unify its competing interests behind a single candidate for governor, William Donald Schaefer. And before him, Mr. Pollack was able to assemble statewide coalitions through handshakes with the Sasser machine in Prince George's County as well as with Col. E. Brooke Lee, the iron-willed boss of Montgomery County. And before them there were Arthur Pue Gorman, Issac Freeman Rasin, Sonny Mahon, Frank Kelly and William "Papa" Curran.

In 1976, Marvin Mandel, then governor, who disliked Jimmy Carter, assembled 53 political bosses and elected officials from around the state at the Baltimore Hilton Hotel to ask them to support Jerry Brown for president. No meeting like it had ever been held. Mr. Brown won the 1976 Maryland primary.

And it's a rare occasion when the same political clubhouse in the northwest corner of Baltimore could produce a governor as well as a mayor. During the high-flying years of Marvin Mandel, Mr. Kovens had a governor in the State House and a mayor in City Hall, which in turn made him a major player in the General Assembly and the City Council as well as the deal-maker in the Democratic State Central Committee.

And to some extent, Mr. Mandel and Mr. Kovens even asserted control over the Republican Party through allies in the State House and the appointment of friendly Republicans to key patronage positions and judgeships.

And Mr. Kovens' sidekick in politics was William "Little Willie" Adams, who acted as Mr. Kovens' enforcer in the black community in exchange for assurances that blacks would get their fair share of patronage positions.

And those were among the most productive years in modern history both at the state level and in Baltimore. From Annapolis came the piggy-back tax, the school construction program, huge local aid programs, the Convention Center, the World Trade Center and the Metro. And those bricks-and-mortar projects, in turn, begat Harborplace, which became the launch-pad for Baltimore's tourism business. And it was usually Mr. Kovens who would deliver Mr. Schaefer's wish-list of needs and wants via Mr. Mandel's private phone in his State House office.

But as sure as the Second Law of Thermodynamics holds that sooner or later everything turns to mulch, such unity and single-purpose politics have vanished and gotten us to the present state of deterioration and disarray.

If Mr. Kovens were alive today, would Mickey Steinberg be imploding before our very eyes? Would there, in fact, be seven major candidates for governor -- four Democrats and three Republicans? And would Baltimore be struggling for political hegemony in a regional duel with the Maryland suburbs around Washington?

It was, after all, Mr. Kovens who brokered Mr. Steinberg as Mr. Schaefer's running mate in 1986 to blunt labor's endorsement of Stephen H. Sachs and his vote-pulling power in the Jewish community. And in 1970, a group of Republicans met privately with Governor Mandel to ask which Republican he preferred as a general election opponent -- then-Prince George's County Executive Lawrence Hogan or Republican Party doyenne Louise Gore. Mr. Mandel chose Ms. Gore, and the rest, as they say, is history.

And under the leadership of both Mr. Pollack and Mr. Kovens, delegations to national political conventions were more balanced gender, race and other party considerations than they are today under the Democrats' wack-a-do delegate selection rules.

And you can be sure that when Mr. Mandel and Mr. Schaefer were up to their butts in alligators, they didn't call the State

House chaplain. They called Mr. Kovens. When Mr. Schaefer lacked the votes for pension reform early in his first term. Mr. Kovens rallied reluctant legislators to his friend's side. When Mr. Mandel was having a tough time selling the Baltimore Metro system to suburban legislators, Mr. Kovens called in some markers from organized labor and associates in Baltimore County.

In their day, political bosses were viewed as evil and corrupt mainly by those anti-organization candidates who couldn't get the machine's support. But at their best, political bosses were moderators and facilitators who could work out differences, negotiate trade-offs and make things happen.

But in today's sanitized environment, anyone caught cutting a deal to bring people together is, by definition, a political boss and therefore corrupt. And maybe that's why nobody wants the job.

In 1986, the publicly visible campaign of Mr. Schaefer was managed by Mark Wasserman. It included Mr. Schaefer's old Harborplace referendum gang -- stalwarts such as Jim Smith, Robert Hillman and Rick Berndt. But backstage there was always the brooding presence of Mr. Kovens. The parallel campaigns caused so much friction that Mr. Kovens broke away and formed his own rogue committee called "Friends of Don Schaefer" over the authority line of venerable City Councilman Willie Myers.

Through that committee, Mr. Kovens carried out his dual assignment: Keep peace in the precincts and elect friendly legislators. For the care and feeding of what remains of the political organization is a time-honored tradition that is expressed in attention as well as with dollars. When Mr. Schaefer was mayor, for example, Mr. Kovens' assignment was simple: Elect 10 friendly City Council members. And he did it with money and favors.

But walk-around money -- cash from organizations to poll workers -- has been devalued, like most other political commodities. A steel worker making as much as $150 a day at Sparrows Point isn't going to take a day off to accept $25 for standing in the cold for 12 hours on election day. Besides, the golden age of polyester is over.

Moreover, to further weaken party loyalty and discipline, creeping changes in the election laws dealing with campaign finance have decentralized the role of money in elections. Through what are known as "continuing" committees, legislators now have financial independence from political parties. And they no longer have to rely on governors or political bosses for handouts. Their new loyalty is to money and special interests.

For example, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's Democrat, has amassed a campaign treasury of $350,000, and the newly installed House Speaker Casper R. Taylor, an Allegany Democrat, was able to raise $200,000 after only four months on the job.

So there's a case of the old reverse English. Mr. Miller and Mr. Taylor intend to use their boodle to subsidize the campaigns of other legislators and, in effect, purchase their loyalty in the General Assembly. While lawmakers used to be viewed as rubber stamps for the governor and political bosses, they're now dittoheads for the legislative leadership.

When the bosses were around, election days were festive occasions with huge voter turnouts (or stay-at-homes, as the occasion demanded). Today, voting is a civic drudge and turnouts are dismally low.

What Mr. Kovens, Mr. Pollack, and in the GOP back room, William "Sweetie" Adelson, shared beyond power was an affection for the great game of politics -- assembling tickets, raising and dispensing hundreds of thousands of dollars in walk-around money and generally behaving like manic Machiavellis.

Bosses like to win. The key to success in the political intelligence business is information, not so much having it as knowing what to do with it. For a good politician stays in power by never allowing a second power center to develop. Politics at the top of its form is like the computer business: Everybody makes a piece of the machine but only the boss knows how to put it together.

And right now nobody's doing the job.

Frank DeFilippo, a political commentator, was press secretary to Gov. Marvin Mandel.

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