IN THE FIRST flush of a clamorous evening, at the heart of this crowd filling the back room at Mac's Bar on Thursday night on Eastern Avenue in Essex, Shirley Rukowski, 83 years old, sits herself down next to William Donald Schaefer and commences to talk politics.
"About this governor's race," she says.
"Oh, my," says Schaefer.
"Oh, my, yes," says Rukowski, with the full wisdom that comes from 70 years in the trenches of local politics. "What I want to know is, can I write in Marvin Mandel for governor?"
Oh, my, indeed.
"Best governor we had," says Schaefer.
"There you go," says Rukowski.
She gestures around the big room. This is a rally out of all the vanishing old-time political rallies. It's a smoke-filled room with everything but the smoke.
There's hot dogs and beer and people crowded around noisy round tables, and all the big Baltimore County east-side pols, and hundreds of the folks who make the political system work.
They're precinct workers and office volunteers, and those such as Rukowski who wish they could write in the name of a Marvin Mandel.
"Now, I was born a Democrat, like most of these people," Rukowski says, leaning in close to Schaefer to be heard over the din of the room. "And I think Kathleen's really a great girl. She's just gotta stand up for herself more." She means the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
"Yup," says Schaefer, who would formally endorse Townsend the next morning but not, significantly, on this night in Essex. "Very nice person."
"It's a hell of a thing to say," says Rukowski, "but I still like Mandel."
"What about the other guy?" somebody asked Schaefer now.
Schaefer understood. The "other" guy, the current governor, Parris Glendening, had been getting under Schaefer's skin for the last few weeks. It's what the two men do to each other, going on eight years now. Sniping was one thing.
But Schaefer, expected to coast to re-election as state comptroller, instead finds himself competing with Secretary of State John Willis. Behind Willis' candidacy is the unsubtle hand of Glendening, shoving him out there.
"The most self-centered, selfish man I've ever seen," Schaefer says. He means Glendening. "Doesn't care about people at all. The reckless spending, and look where we are now: a billion-dollar deficit out of a billion-dollar surplus. I warned him for the last two years about overspending, and he never acknowledged me. And Kathleen ..."
"She was there when the money was spent, wasn't she?" Schaefer was asked.
"Nah," Schaefer said. He paused to shake the hands of people passing his table. "He's a one-man operation. He never included her in budget stuff. He dictated that budget. Every dollar. And now we've got this deficit that's going to make life impossible for the next governor."
"Why doesn't she say this?" someone asked.
"I told her," Schaefer said. "I said, 'You got to break away.' She said, 'I believe in loyalty.' I said, 'I do, too, but not if you're killing yourself.' And where's his loyalty to her? He puts Willis into the race against me.
"That means I've got to have a campaign. It means I've got to put my people, and my money, to work for me. If Willis isn't in the race, I can put my people, and my money, to work for Kathleen. Glendening knows this. He knows it. But it's more important to him that he sticks it to me."
On a little stage in a corner of the room now, some of the east-side pols gathered for speeches. They motioned for Schaefer. For the next 15 minutes, he gave Glendening one shot after another.
"I look at him and get sick," Schaefer said. This was one of the nicer things. The big crowd laughed and applauded, because Schaefer is one of theirs, and Glendening is just a guy who passed through and now vanishes.
And then came the others: C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the county executive running for Congress. He got a big hand. And Norman Stone, John Arnick, Joseph J. "Sonny" Minnick, John Olszewski, all running for familiar legislative seats, all talking about the current campaign.
And out of these half-dozen speakers, across a span of maybe 45 minutes, it hit you. In this hall full of Democrats, in the heat of a statewide campaign, no speaker mentioned one name: the top of the Democratic ticket, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's.
Asked about it afterward, Schaefer, Ruppersberger and Stone shrugged their shoulders. It was a Democratic crowd, but this was the east side of Baltimore County.
Out here, those in the hall were ambivalent about her, at best. Some decried her anti-slot machine stance. Some associated her with Glendening. Some criticized her lack of combativeness. Some openly support her Republican opponent, Robert Ehrlich.
And some, like Shirley Rukowski, sat down next to William Donald Schaefer and gazed across the years, and asked to write in for Marvin Mandel.