Toto, just what is this place?

The Baltimore Sun

Marc Steiner's out, Nancy Grasmick's in, Martin O'Malley is letting a bygone be bygone, and street thugs are resting two whole days, on average, between murders.

Where am I, and why am I here?

Last I knew, this was a place with an authentic Baltimore voice on NPR (albeit one that commutes from Sparks). With a state schools superintendent who was being pushed out and a governor who held killer grudges. With murderers who spent Januarys snuffing out lives at a rate of one a day.

What accounts for this sudden burst of public radio upheaval, political maturity and homicidal sloth?

First, Steiner: The real story is, he got a better offer. At least he got a better offer after the station he saved gave him the boot. It came from Leonard Kerpelman, a lawyer who won a landmark 1960s Supreme Court case - he got prayer out of public schools - before going on to become a City Hall gadfly and public-access TV buff. Kerpelman told The Sun's Jill Rosen that he'd like to offer Steiner his entire three-hour public access TV slot.

"Ratings, shmatings," said Kerpelman, who fills his TV time with images of the woods near his Northwest Baltimore home.

Next, Grasmick and O'Malley: The Gov can't get rid of The Supe without the General Assembly's help. But that takes political capital, and right now, O'Malley's ratings are lower than Steiner's. He'll be lucky to deliver true-blue Maryland to a Clinton next week, after another Clinton delivered Maryland to him.

And finally, the thugs: Tired of supplying The Wire with material for free, Baltimore's bad guys have staged a work slowdown. May they follow the TV writers and go completely on strike.

Shouldn't have gone to the bathroom

Baltimore cartoonist Tom Chalkley knows the highlight of his career came in 1999, when he made The New Yorker twice. But he's having trouble convincing friends of that since Sunday, when one of his caricatures made a fleeting appearance in a Super Bowl ad.

It was in the Coke spot with James Carville and former Sen. Bill Frist, who put aside their partisan bickering over a couple fizzy sugar waters. The new best friends do the D.C. tourist thing, and even pose together for a sidewalk cartoonist. (Eventually, I imagine, they'll visit the dentist in tandem.)

Chalkley, who teaches cartooning at Hopkins and draws lots of City Paper covers, doesn't play the artist in the ad. (Not in the actor's guild.) He just did the caricatures, which was a snap when it came to the Lex Luthor-ish Carville, but not so with distinguishing-characteristic-free Frist.

"Carville is ready-made for caricatures," said Chalkley, who worked from photos. "He's one of the funniest-looking people in public life. And Frist sort of looks like a plank of wood. He doesn't have much personality."

Chalkley got the gig through Susan Kessel, a local production designer and set decorator. Both thought they were working on a run-of-the-mill commercial. Chalkley found out it was bound for the bowl after a friend caught a preview of game-day ads and saw that one starred Carville and Frist. (Hey, didn't you just draw them?)

There's so much money in Super Bowl ads that Chalkley has become a very rich man, right? Sadly, he charged his regular rate for "portrait caricatures," which have more color and detail than the usual, $50 sidewalk stuff. (He wasn't saying exactly how much.)

"Let's put it this way, I should have asked them for a lot more," he said. "I don't have the right Spidey sense. A little bell doesn't go off and say, 'Oh, magnify your price by five.'"

But at least he got the psychic thrill of seeing his work on TV, right? He did tune in to the game.

"I don't even watch football. It was torture," he said. "I walked away from the TV for three minutes and I missed it."

Like Chalkley, you can see it on YouTube by searching for "Coca-Cola Super Bowl Ad."

Stand aside, boys, we've got a live one

The top three contenders in a hotter-than-hot congressional primary appear together tomorrow, just five days before Maryland votes.

So why don't Wayne Gilchrest, Andy Harris and E.J. Pipkin get top billing? Because someone else is slated to appear at the Baltimore County GOP's Lincoln/Reagan dinner at the Dewey Lowman American Legion Post 109 in Halethorpe: Mitt Romney.

County GOP Chairman Chris Cavey has been trying for months to get all of the Republican presidential candidates to commit to the dinner - on the then-bizarro theory that Maryland primaries might just matter.

Couple of wild and crazy freelancers

Another sign that Maryland presidential primaries could count: Larry Gibson and Ronald Shapiro have just gone out and had thousands of "Maryland for Obama" signs printed up, with their own cash, and without consulting the senator's campaign.

"It was something we just wanted to do, and we did it," said Gibson, a University of Maryland law professor who was state chairman of Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992. ("This is not anti-Clinton," he said. "This is pro-Obama.")

He and Shapiro, a sports agent, attorney and author, have been active in Maryland politics for decades, but never quite like this.

"Neither one of us has been directly involved in the Obama campaign," Gibson said. "When I started this, I didn't even know who was in charge. There wasn't even a [Maryland] headquarters to call."

(It opened in Towson on Friday.)

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