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A Touch of Gibsonitis


The two-fer deal is either good or bad: With Kurt Lidell Schmoke voters get Larry Steven Gibson.

If Mr. Schmoke wins a third term this fall as Baltimore's first elected African-American mayor, Mr. Gibson will have solidified his status as Maryland's political boss.

Mr. Gibson denies he is a boss.

"What's your definition?" he asks. "A political boss controls jobs and patronage. I don't do that. I occasionally run campaigns for people I like."

He accuses The Sun of "Gibsonitis." Yeah, right.

If anything, too little is being written about this University of Maryland law professor who plots winning political campaigns and pulls strings behind the scenes afterward.

Mr. Gibson was responsible for President Clinton carrying Maryland. He orchestrated the narrow victory of Gov. Parris N. Glendening. He had a hand in the election of Wayne K. Curry, Prince George's County's first African-American county executive. This is just a brief list of his most recent achievements.

Mr. Gibson's historical significance is that he is -- in a somewhat untraditional way -- the first African-American political boss in Maryland's existence.

What about Tom Smith, the turn-of-the-century Democratic kingpin?

Tom Smith, a Druid Hill Avenue hotelier, was legendary as a distributor of patronage. On election days he sponsored out-of-town picnics for Baltimore's blacks -- who were mostly Republican in those days -- so that they would not vote. But in the end he was just a cog in the white Rasin-Gorman machine which controlled Maryland for 37 years.

In contrast, Mr. Gibson takes orders from nobody.

The instrument of Mr. Gibson's control is the Shapiro and Olander law firm, where he is "of counsel." Its founder, Ronald Shapiro, is Mr. Schmoke's chief fund-raiser.

The firm does lucrative legal work for the city government -- particularly such important agencies as the Baltimore Development Corp. It is said that virtually no consequential contract is awarded without scrutiny by what at City Hall is known simply as the "law firm."

Yet this is not an easy time for Mr. Gibson.

After eight years of Schmoke administration he has to worry not only about the mayor's re-election but about continuing his own control in case Mr. Schmoke decides to take a judgeship or some other job outside City Hall.

The only way Mr. Gibson can assure his future clout is to have a cooperative person as president of the City Council. Which brings us to Councilwoman Vera P. Hall.

In her two terms as representative of Northwest Baltimore's Fifth District, Mrs. Hall has established an unimpressive record. She was supposed to chair the council's housing committee, but closed her eyes and ears to the scandalous state of vacant houses in the city. As Mr. Schmoke's floor leader, she has been ineffective and inattentive.

Yet here she is being praised by Mayor Schmoke as his preferred candidate for the City Council president's job. Why? Is she adequately malleable? Or would she be willing to resign, if promoted to mayor?

If this sounds far-fetched and cynical, consider the tempting possibilities of the scenario.

If the mayor resigns and is succeeded by the City Council president who then also resigns, the council will elect a new president (who would become mayor) by a simple majority vote. And here comes the kicker. "The person so elected," says the City Charter, "may, but need not, be, at the time of election, a member of the City Council."

Daniel P. Henson III perhaps?

All public-opinion polls conducted so far reportedly come to the conclusion that among the four declared candidates Mrs. Hall enjoys the least amount of support. The Schmoke campaign, at least for the time being, still believes that this can be changed and that Mrs. Hall can be elected on the mayor's coattails.

Mr. Gibson is a pro. But is he a miracle worker? We'll see.

One of the most impressive things about the Schmoke campaign headquarters at 213 Saint Paul Place is its telephone bank of 40 lines. This clearly is an ambitious operation. And it is swimming in money. No pizza for campaign workers; their meals are catered every night!

As the campaign gets going, you can expect Mr. Gibson to forge strategic alliances throughout the city. If he cannot win support for the Schmoke-Hall team, he can buy it.

Other bosses do that all the time.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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