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Dueling Democrats

By Lloyd Grove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 1998

  Style Showcase

Parris Glendening has a tough race. Maryland politico Larry Gibson is doing what he can to make it tougher.

BALTIMORE—The encounter is ticklish, to say the least.

Larry Gibson, Maryland's most conspicuous Democratic political operative, and Gov. Parris Glendening, titular head of the state's Democratic Party, have suddenly found themselves in the same room. It's an inner-city Methodist church where the governor, fighting for his political future in a merciless reelection race, is seeking the endorsement of 400 community activists at their "Gubernatorial Primary Accountability Night."

Gibson is here with his own candidate, Harford County Executive Eileen Rehrmann, whose primary challenge is making the governor's life hell. But Rehrmann's rump candidacy is almost beside the point.

Larry Gibson The consuming question for the state's political professionals: What is Larry up to? (Mark Gail/The Post)
"I've just basically concluded that he is not an honorable person," Gibson, 56, says acidly before the church meeting. "His word is worth nothing. He is, without a doubt, the biggest disappointment to me from a character perspective of any political figure I've ever worked with – and I've been involved in politics for 30 years."

Glendening, meanwhile, casts Gibson as a Rasputin who exerts sinister control over Maryland's two top African American politicians, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry (who have both endorsed Rehrmann). "You've got his great influence over two individuals," the governor claims. When asked about Gibson's charge that he's reneged on a string of promises, Glendening snaps: "I'm not going to get into that nonsense. And that's what it is – nonsense."

The two antagonists haven't spoken in months. But now they're together in the Lord's house, working nearby pews filled with members of an organization known as BUILD – Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development. When the governor gets within a dozen feet, Gibson decides to go over and say hi.

Wearing a broad professional smile, he plants himself directly in front of Glendening.

"Governor, howya doin'?"

Glendening, looking puzzled and in need of an escape route, has no alternative but to pump Gibson's hand.

"Hey, Larry, good to see you!"

His greeting has the approximate warmth of liquid nitrogen.

A Question of Motives
Maryland's Democratic establishment, not surprisingly, is solidly behind its incumbent governor, whose rocky first term has been plagued by political missteps, leaving him marginally popular and vulnerable to attack. As he faces the Sept. 15 primary and the prospect of a bruising general election battle with Ellen Sauerbrey, the same Republican who nearly beat him four years ago, Glendening can boast the support of almost every elected Democrat in the state, including the vast majority of African American office-holders.

But the political professionals here are fixated on (depending on who's talking) Gibson's quixotic, vindictive, ruinous and/or courageous attempt to replace the sitting governor with a little-known politician from a semi-rural county northeast of Baltimore. They're at once titillated and tormented by the consuming question: What's Larry up to?

"I think Larry, who has been very effective in organizing certain sections of the black community in the western part of Baltimore, wants to become a statewide political leader," says former governor and current state comptroller candidate William Donald Schaefer, a longtime Gibson antagonist. "He sees some benefit in pushing Eileen for statewide office. But I don't think Larry's aspirations are particularly good for the state."

"This is Larry's 'Peter Principle,' " ventures Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings (D-Baltimore), a staunch Glendening supporter who is chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee in the Maryland House. ("The Peter Principle," the best-selling book about corporate culture, argues that every executive ultimately rises to his level of incompetence.) "I truly think he's acting out of personal pique and also to send a message – that you can't take the black vote for granted. In a way, I admire what he's doing, because he's willing to step out of the loop and chart a different course. But in the end this is Larry Gibson's personal issue with Glendening, who does have a habit of over-promising. It's one of his character flaws – and we all have them."

"Larry is convinced, or was convinced when he started this race, that Parris was going to lose," says Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who himself had considered opposing Glendening for the nomination, at Gibson's urging. "I've had enough conversations with Larry to know that he is very sincere about trying to preserve the governor's office for the Democrats."

Yet, Cardin concedes, the opposite could occur if the wounded survivor of a bloody primary faces a robust Republican in November. "That's a real possibility, and that's one of things that led me to the conclusion not to run," Cardin says.

"The situation is very awkward," says Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), a onetime Gibson protege who represents Baltimore in Congress. "As I become more familiar with it, I'm more sensitive to how awkward it really is. People on the Hill, of course, come up to me and ask about it. Most of them are shaking their heads. The most common question is: 'What the hell is going on in Maryland? You've got a Democratic governor and we are losing everything around the country. Is the guy that bad?' And I basically say, 'I don't completely understand it myself.' "

Gibson explains his actions by saying that (a) the governor has broken some key promises, notably a pledge – which Glendening says he never made – to support the introduction of slot machines at Maryland racetracks and use the extra tax revenue to fund the state's beleaguered public schools; and (b) the governor will be easy pickings for Sauerbrey in the fall.

"Let me be very clear about this: I think that there is almost no chance that he would beat Ellen Sauerbrey," Gibson says. "I've spoken with many people who disagree, but they tend not to be privy to some pretty extensive polling data I've looked at. If we had not lifted a finger for Eileen, Parris would still lose to Ellen Sauerbrey. What I'm trying to do is to prevent her from winning, because I don't want Sauerbrey to be governor either."

But few Democratic insiders accept Gibson's explanations at face value. After all, it's a rare politician who doesn't fudge, trim or otherwise change his mind – a political misdemeanor at worst. Glendening and others have suggested that Gibson – a civil rights and business attorney since graduating from Columbia University Law School in 1967, a law professor at the University of Maryland since 1974 and now "of counsel" to the white-shoe firm of Olander & Shapiro – is a paid shill for gambling interests.

"It's nonsense and Glendening knows it's not true," Gibson responds. "I don't represent the horse-racing industry. I'm not a lobbyist for them." Gibson, however, acknowledges receiving payments from the Maryland Jockey Club – the industry trade association – for preparing a brochure supporting slot machines, consulting on a promotional video and designing the video's packaging.

On the other hand, Gibson's attempt to unseat the state's top Democrat is considered a grave felony among party loyalists – the political equivalent of Murder One. The punishment could be severe.

"The worst thing that could happen to Larry, and also to Mayor Schmoke, is for Sauerbrey to win, because then every Democrat in the state would blame them," says a prominent Maryland officeholder who asked not to be named. "They would be finished in Maryland politics."

Schmoke is a Harvard-trained lawyer and one of the nation's best-known black politicians as the three-term mayor of Baltimore. He has long been extremely close to Gibson, who managed every one of his political campaigns since his 1982 run for state's attorney. Schmoke, who employs Gibson's wife, Diana, as an assistant in his office, seldom blinks without checking first with his top political adviser – who can frequently be found at City Hall, strolling through the mayor's office as though he owned the place.

"I make a distinction between the business of governing and the business of politics," Schmoke says. "But if somebody is going to ask me to get involved in a campaign, I always suggest that they go to Larry first."

Still, the mayor dismisses widespread speculation that Gibson was the chief factor in his and Curry's participation in this unseemly duel with the governor. "We're not under the spell of one individual any more than Governor Glendening is," Schmoke says. "I got into this position because the governor and I have a substantial disagreement on what I consider a very significant policy issue: how we retain jobs and hire teachers by having new revenue sources – and that's slots at racetracks."

While he says he's backing Rehrmann because she agrees with him on that and other issues, Schmoke concedes that he's also personally aggrieved – "though probably not with as much force as Larry," he says. In recent months, the mayor and the governor have engaged in a bitter exchange over what Glendening may or may not have promised Schmoke in a private meeting. "I believe there are strong questions about the man's credibility," Schmoke says. "I'm someone who has been victimized by his essentially calling me a liar. I don't warm to the notion that this is the man I should be supporting for governor."

Curry, for his part, has long had abrasive relations with Glendening – whom he succeeded as Prince George's County executive after a campaign managed by Gibson – and regularly spews vitriol at the governor. Last month Curry dipped into his personal war chest to air a series of negative radio commercials backing Rehrmann and accusing Glendening of neglecting the county's schoolchildren.

But Curry, too, tries to minimize the influence of Gibson, who was his law professor at the University of Maryland in the late 1970s.

"The blunt fact of the matter, which some people are trying to obscure with self-serving drivel, is that Parris didn't have a prayer of being elected governor until the political people in P.G. and Baltimore City started working very hard to get him elected," Curry says. "The chief executives of both jurisdictions are very unhappy with how they've been treated. We haven't fared well in the past four years. Politics is a two-way street. To now turn around and accuse us of disloyalty is a patently hypocritical double standard."

Four years ago, Gibson and Glendening were close allies in the latter's hairsbreadth win. But as their relationships soured, Gibson began looking for a new candidate daring enough to take on the governor.

"If Ben Cardin had run, and many of us were urging him to, I clearly would have supported him," Gibson says. "I wanted a strong Democrat who had a chance of getting elected. Eileen Rehrmann was the Democrat who stepped forward."

Gibson – a master of retail politics and grass-roots organizing, with a magnificent obsession for yard signs – says he barely knew Rehrmann, a former state legislator who's been Harford County executive for eight years, when she approached him early last year and asked him to run her campaign. After "some intense discussions," he agreed to do so last September. The subsequent endorsements of Schmoke and Curry immediately conferred gravitas on Rehrmann's long-shot candidacy.

"He's one of the best political strategists that I know in the state of Maryland," Rehrmann says. "Larry has a good sense of working with people on the grass-roots level."

Rehrmann – who recent polls indicate is trailing far behind the governor five weeks before the primary election – has been trying to make an issue of Glendening's personal integrity as well as his opposition to slot machines. But so far, much of the media attention accorded her campaign has focused on Gibson's feud with Glendening, and all the havoc it has wreaked on the body politic.

"There's no question that Gibson's image is larger than life," says independent analyst Keith Haller, a Bethesda-based pollster. "Political history is littered with high-profile consultants who have been done in by too much publicity. When you're a high-profile campaign consultant and you receive more publicity than your candidate, then you're apt to find yourself on somewhat of a destruction course."

The Big Picture
Gibson, however, is accustomed to being a lightning rod. Former governor Schaefer, among others, frequently accuses him of playing to divisive racial politics – a charge Gibson has characterized as "offensive" and untrue.

It is, in any case, difficult to square Schaefer's complaint with Gibson's ebullient personality. As he reminisces about his life in politics while directing a reporter/chauffeur down a street of Baltimore row houses to count the "Rehrmann" signs installed on front lawns – "Are you determined to have an accident?" he demands at one point – Gibson is all perpetual energy and infectious optimism.

"I'll never forget when I met James Eastland, because we had a real nice time together," he says, recalling the famous Mississippi segregationist who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Gibson, hired for Jimmy Carter's Justice Department as an associate deputy attorney general, paid a courtesy call on Eastland in 1977.

"I'd taught at Ole Miss Law School a couple of years before, so I was one of the boys." Gibson starts chuckling. "We got to talking about agriculture, and I observed there were really a lot of soybeans being grown, and Eastland says, 'Yeah, them s'ybeans, that's what they grow now to make more money. But I don't know 'bout them s'ybeans. For me, I got to have a little cotton around – for sentimental purposes."

Gibson laughs a belly laugh. He has come far enough in life that he can afford to be amused, if not nostalgic, at the memory of the courtly old racist.

The son of a janitor father and a cook mother, he was born in the District, the fifth of six children, and grew up in segregated Baltimore. He went to work as a teenager, setting pins in a whites-only bowling alley and helping his father, Benjamin Franklin Gibson, on cleaning jobs. Encouraged by his mother, Daisy – whose eighth-grade education belied her voracious appetite for reading and conversation – he excelled at academics and politics, attending Baltimore's prestigious City College High School (where he was the first black elected to student office), Howard University (where he was student body president) and Columbia.

In an early display of political iconoclasm, Gibson supported Republican Spiro Agnew's successful 1966 gubernatorial candidacy because Agnew – later Richard Nixon's disgraced vice president – was more progressive on race issues than the Democrat, George Mahoney. From 1968 on, Gibson honed his political organizing skills on a series of local, statewide and national campaigns. In 1992 he was chairman of then-Gov. Bill Clinton's Maryland campaign.

Gibson's home in Baltimore's wealthy Guilford neighborhood and law office near the Inner Harbor are plastered with signed photos of President Clinton and Vice President Gore from White House dinners, political fund-raisers and other occasions he likes to remember.

But Gibson affects a wide-eyed look of surprise when a visitor points out a framed snapshot in his office of two grinning Marylanders standing side by side at the state capitol: Larry Gibson and Parris Glendening on Inauguration Day, 1995.

"Oh!" Gibson exclaims with a giggle. "I thought I turned that one down!"

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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