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  • Maryland Elections '98

  •   Man Who Helped Elect Glendening
    Now Leading Charge to Oust Him

    Larry S. Gibson at a Baltimore rally for Democratic gubernatorial challenger Eileen M. Rehrmann
    Larry S. Gibson, at a Baltimore rally for Democrat Eileen M. Rehrmann, once helped elect Gov. Parris N. Glendening. (By Mark Gail/TWP)
    By Robert E. Pierre
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, April 27, 1998; Page B01

    Everything was set for Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's rally last week to endorse a little-known challenger of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, when two bus loads of loud, sign-waving Glendening supporters arrived, threatening to upstage the mayor.

    Larry S. Gibson, Schmoke's political adviser, reacted quickly. He moved the speaker's microphone from street level to a City Hall portico far above the raucous crowd. And he directed the drivers of two pickups and a large dump truck to blare their horns and move closer to the original stage, dispersing the Glendening crowd and giving Schmoke's people a higher perch.

    It was typical of the tactical maneuvering that has made Gibson famous in Maryland political circles. Now Gibson's political skills will be sorely tested, as the 56-year-old lawyer-operative tries to achieve a feat many believe is impossible: ousting a governor in his own party's primary as the economy thrives.

    Gibson is at the center of the storm buffeting Maryland's Democratic Party. Having once played a major role in helping Glendening raise his profile in Baltimore, Gibson is now leading the charge to dump the governor he helped elect. He is managing the upstart campaign of Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, bringing Schmoke along with him and altering the dynamics of what once appeared to be an easy renomination for Glendening.

    With the prospect of another close associate, Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry, also jumping to Rehrmann's ship, Gibson is finding his own motives under attack by Glendening and his supporters. Glendening allies suggest darkly that Gibson's dramatic turnabout can be explained by one thing: a desire to bring slot machines to Maryland and get a piece of the take for himself.

    Gibson and Schmoke say Glendening reneged on an agreement to allow slots at Maryland racetracks, with some of the revenue funding city schools. Gibson has worked for Maryland racetrack owner Joseph A. De Francis, a strong advocate of slots at the racetracks. De Francis said Gibson's role in a promotional campaign for the racing industry ended months ago.

    Schmoke, meanwhile, is close to baking magnate John Paterakis, who wants to bring slot machines to a downtown Baltimore hotel he is developing.

    While Gibson says he has no "continuing relationship" with De Francis, Glendening is hammering away at the Gibson-Schmoke-slots connection.

    "The mayor and the executive [Curry] are very much controlled by one individual, Larry Gibson," Glendening said Friday on the Baltimore-based Marc Steiner radio show. "I've had an outpouring of people who are very, very angry about the prospect of bringing slots and casinos here."

    Gibson shrugs off the criticism. "Folks say a lot of things," he said, adding that Glendening has broken promises to Schmoke on issues other than slots. He said Glendening wouldn't be able to beat Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey if the two meet again in November's general election.

    "If Glendening gets the nomination, Sauerbrey wins by a comfortable margin," Gibson said. "I'm trying to prevent a major step backwards."

    Gibson has been involved as a strategist, fund-raiser and organizer for a string of successful campaigns in Baltimore, where he helped elect the city's first black state's attorney, first black mayor and first black Congress member.

    Gibson also coordinated a strong showing in Maryland for the Clinton/Gore campaign in 1992 and played a big role in helping to turn out the city vote for Glendening in 1994. And in a rare campaign outside Baltimore, Gibson was a driving force in Curry's 1994 election as Prince George's county executive.

    Supporters say Gibson is a savvy political operative, slipping easily between gritty street campaigning and $1,000-per-person fund-raisers for U.S. presidents and governors. Critics, however, say Gibson's political prowess is overrated. Some portray him as an angry black man who promotes policies that foster distrust between black and white voters and is seeking to hoard political power for himself.

    "He's a racist," said former Democratic governor William Donald Schaefer, a longtime Gibson foe. "He was the one that pushed the mayor to endorsing Rehrmann. He's looking to become a statewide political boss. . . . The question is, will a black man be able to sell a golden-haired, blue-eyed white in the black community."

    Gibson, a Justice Department official in the Carter administration and longtime college professor, pauses before responding to Schaefer's allegations. He's heard them before. In Schmoke's last mayoral race, Gibson and Schmoke were castigated by Schaefer and others for using the colors of red, black and green -- which stand for African liberation -- on campaign literature.

    "I find the governor's remarks offensive," Gibson said. "That's 1970s racial rhetoric that Schaefer should be ashamed of. The nation, and certainly the state, is beyond that type of stereotyping. I supported black politicians. I supported white politicians."

    Gibson and Baltimore lawyer Ron Shapiro, who is white, call each other best friends. The two met as law clerks for a federal judge in 1967, later collaborating on city housing discrimination cases. Their offices are side by side in the firm of Shapiro and Olander, the Baltimore law firm where Gibson has worked part time since 1987.

    "How can Larry the racist be the campaign manager for Eileen Rehrmann?" asked Shapiro, best known as the agent for Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken Jr. "How could Ron Shapiro be his closest friend? His political opponents are going to call him every name they can because . . . he shakes them up and, in the end, he wins most of the time."

    Gibson fell in love with politics in the 1960s at Howard University, heading a group called D.C. Students for Civil Rights. He ran his first real political campaign a year after getting his law degree from Columbia University in 1967.

    The trademark of a Gibson-managed campaign is high energy. Gibson often angers local leaders by saturating neighborhoods with colorful political signs, an effort to demonstrate grass-roots support for his candidates. But co-workers said his willingness to take on minor tasks inspires those around him.

    "It's the details that matter," Gibson said. "You hear about people calling me a strategist as if there's some magic to this, some special tactical aspect of things. I win elections because I work hard. We out-hustle everybody else."

    But many say this year's challenge is impossible, no matter how hard Gibson works.

    "No one has knocked off an incumbent governor in the primary in the history of the state," noted Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), a Glendening ally. Miller said Gibson and Schmoke made a "huge" mistake in endorsing Rehrmann.

    As for other rumored defections, Miller said: "If Wayne [Curry] stood on the top of the county administration building and yelled 'Eileen Rehrmann' 20,000 times, she's still not going to carry a single precinct in Prince George's. This is foreign territory for her."

    But Gibson allies -- and some former opponents -- say they will never write him off. Schmoke said Gibson is "strong-willed" and tireless. And Curry, who was a student of Gibson's at the University of Maryland law school, calls Gibson a "genius."

    Meticulous about details, Gibson was rushing around long before Schmoke's endorsement of Rehrmann last week to ensure that everything -- the band, the John Deere tractor, campaign signs -- was perfectly positioned. And when Schmoke was speaking, Gibson clutched a microphone of his own, leading the amen chorus.

    All the while, Gibson was smiling and having fun. The next morning, he was up at 7:30, greeting subway riders in Baltimore, singing songs, laughing with commuters and passing out literature alongside Rehrmann and a half-dozen campaign workers.

    Gibson and Schmoke say they love each other like brothers -- a closeness that has often led to allegations that Gibson controls Schmoke. Both men deny it, noting that Gibson was hugely disappointed with Schmoke's willingness to cede some control of the Baltimore public school system to obtain more education aid from the state last year.

    "I run a campaign in great detail," Gibson said. "But the details of city, state or other government are for people who are foolish enough to run for office."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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