Larry S. Gibson, the premier political organizer in Maryland and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's closest adviser, said yesterday that he will back Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann in the 1998 race for governor.
Schmoke said Gibson was acting on his own, but the high-level defection will be seen as a blow to the re-election prospects of Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
"I think Glendening has almost no chance of winning the general election," Gibson said in an interview in which he was highly critical of the Democratic governor's performance and integrity.
"A vote for Glendening in the primary is a vote for Ellen Sauerbrey," Gibson said, referring to the likely Republican nominee. He said it is fear of a Republican takeover in the General Assembly and State House that has turned him away from his party's incumbent governor.
The Rehrmann campaign eagerly acknowledged that Gibson is serving as a strategist and adviser for her.
"Larry's definitely on our team, and we're glad to have his help. He's a smart man," said George Harrison, one of Rehrmann's campaign managers. "He has extensive knowledge of grass-roots politics, how to get out the vote," he said.
Democratic party sources said Gibson chose Rehrmann over Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who took himself out of the race for governor Tuesday, in part because she would be a more attractive campaigner than the congressman.
A Glendening campaign official, Robin O. Oegerle, said Gibson was merely shopping his skills to the highest bidder.
"Larry Gibson is a free agent, an independent operator," she said. "He's going to work for whomever pays him the most money. So I think everything he says you should take with a grain of salt."
Gibson said he is not being paid at the moment and that his precise role in the campaign has not been defined.
Symbolism and credibility
Whatever his title or compensation, Gibson is a major political player whom many will regard as the unofficial representative of Schmoke as well as of Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry. Gibson worked in Curry's victorious 1994 campaign and knows the political dynamic of that county well.
"Larry Gibson likes to work with winners," said former state legislator Timothy F. Maloney of Prince George's. "He wouldn't be spending time if he didn't think she could win."
"It gives Rehrmann credibility," said Herb Smith, a political scientist at Western Maryland College who tracks local elections. "It's especially important in the community that counts during this very early stage, and that is the political community."
Schmoke said he was aware that his chief political strategist was working as a consultant for Rehrmann. But he distanced himself by saying that Gibson was acting independently.
As he has for the past few months, Schmoke maintained that he would not make any political decisions or endorsements until the end of the legislative session.
"He's doing that on his own," Schmoke said. "A lot of people go to him to ask for political advice, and he makes his own judgment. I am not getting involved at this point."
Curry could not be reached for comment.
Already, Gibson has been out with Rehrmann introducing her to potential campaign contributors.
On Tuesday night, after the premiere of the made-for-TV movie "First Time Felon" at the Senator Theater, Gibson took her around at a reception in honor of the actor and filmmaker, Charles "Roc" Dutton. The two, side by side, mingled and chatted with the crowd of political, business and union leaders who were sipping drinks and eating crab balls and freshly carved beef.
Three years ago, Gibson's connections, energy and experience were at the disposal of Glendening: He and Schmoke endorsed Glendening in the governor's race over two Baltimore-area state senators.
Gibson said yesterday that endorsement was made at some risk, and only after a series of commitments by Glendening.
"When he was very low in the polls in this area, we went out on a limb to endorse him," Gibson said. "We had an absolute, iron-clad agreement that he would, during his first term in office, make as a top priority state assumption of the costs of the circuit court, register of wills and state's attorney's office.
"There were no ifs, ands or buts. And none of the commitments have been met," Gibson said.
Governor doesn't comment
Glendening, through his press secretary, declined to comment. Oegerle, his campaign treasurer, said she doubted that any such commitments were made.
"The governor and the mayor are striving to make Maryland a better place to live," she said, "and I'm sure they discuss at length how they can work together, but mayors and governors don't cut deals. Any implication that they cut deals is flatly erroneous."
Gibson said an earlier disagreement between Schmoke and Glendening over slot machines led to Gibson's belief that the governor did not deserve the city's backing in 1998.
The mayor, he said, had an understanding with Glendening that revenue from slots would be used to help Baltimore schools. Later, the governor said no such agreement had been made.
"I guarantee you," Gibson said, "that one way of not getting my support is to call Kurt Schmoke a liar."
Schmoke continues openly to seek more legalized gaming for Baltimore, but Glendening has steadfastly stated his opposition. Rehrmann, in contrast, has expressed concern about gambling -- but has said she would have to look at the legalization of slot machines at race tracks if needed to save the state's racing industry.
Last year, after the disagreement between Glendening and Schmoke over slots, Gibson and Baltimore housing chief Daniel P. Henson III, the other key player in the Schmoke political organization, began talking about potential challengers to Glendening.
Both men quietly told key political leaders in the city that they intended to find a candidate strong enough to beat Glendening and also win the general election. Early on, they mentioned Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. Later it was Cardin. Ultimately, Gibson decided upon Rehrmann.
(Henson, like the mayor, says Gibson is acting on his own.)
Cautious over effect
While some saw Gibson's work for Rehrmann as a setback for Glendening, others cautioned against a rush to judgment, saying it was far too early in the campaign to assess the impact of Gibson's activities.
"I don't know if he can deliver Baltimore," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "Rehrmann is not well known outside of her home county."
A number of leaders in the overwhelmingly Democratic city fear a primary battle will result in the general election loss that nearly occurred in 1994.
"Now that Cardin has dropped out, we should focus on unifying the Democratic Party," said Councilwoman Helen L. Holton of Northwest Baltimore. "My concern is how we will deal with a real Republican challenger."
Some prominent Democrats in Baltimore have already endorsed Glendening, including senators Larry Young, Nathaniel J. McFadden, Delores G. Kelley, Joan Carter Conway, Perry Sfikas and Clarence W. Blount.
McFadden, who chairs the city's Senate delegation, said Gibson's renowned organizational skills would force them to put even more effort into the governor's re-election campaign.
"We'll just have to work a little harder because Mr. Gibson will be on the other side," he said.
Pub Date: 9/06/97