During this first slow phase of the 1977 General Assembly, a lanky 26-year old press aide tried hard to upstage the politicians in Annapolis and move the spotlight over to his boss, Prince George's County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr.The scheme generally backfired. Kelly's name was in the newspapers but wreathed by angry comments from other politicians.
But the press aide, John A. Lally, thought in the end that it all worked out well, given the principle that bad publicity is better than no publicity. Lally's scheme was simple enough. Hold well-heralded press conferences to publicly announce all the hardships county citizens must bear because of financial problems. Then tell the citizens that the only way out was to force the state legislature to pass laws allowing the county to pass new kinds of taxes.
If Lally's aim was to cajole the county delegates through a citizen lobby into accepting Kelly's package, the scheme didn't work. People in the county didn't like the idea of future hardships but they disliked the idea of lobbying for new taxes even more.
The delegates thought Lally had ovstepped his bounds: "The problem with the guy is he's never held a real job in his life . . . I like Winnie but he's made a mistake listening to those young turks of his . . ."
They did not like Lally's attempt to fence them in.
The delegates sounded naive.Lally is Kelly. He is more than a "press aid," a largely underrated title. Lally is one of Kelly's closest political advisers as well as the man who speaks in his name. He is Kelly's political standin who often formulates policy or speaks out on issues before Kelly has had the time to make up his own mind.
Lally is easily more powerful than most elected officials in the county, a fact that most people ignore. Friends say privately that Lally thought up the tenant tax. If that is true, Lally in recent memory: A 4 per cent tax on all rents in a county where half the citizens live in apartments.
This power for a man who never faced legislative confirmation or popular election is not without a precedent. Frank A. DeFilippo, until recently Gov-Marvin Mandella aide, had political influence that puts Lally to shame.
DeFilippo was Mandel's press aide and chief of staff for eight years. His opinions were so well respected by Mandel that critics quickly saw DeFilippo or Flip as he is called, as the Rasputin figure of the statehouse. Flip was a splendid alter-ego. His clothes and his manner sparkled. It seemed as if no one could match his quick wit, his presence, or his easy way with all the creatures that inhabit Annapolis; the reporters, the delegates, the lobbyists, the governor, the townspeople.
Flip was the polish for Mandel's tired, well-worn political personality. He put a gleam to Mandel's office that covered the nicks and rough scars suffered in a Northwest Baltimore political career. Flip wrote the yearly state of the state messages, adding thmor. He also wrote Mandel's painfully personal "I am leaving for the woman I love" statement that told the world and Mandel's first wife that the governor wanted a divorce.
Of course, Kelly, as a county executive, is not Mandel and Lally is even less a DeFilippo. But there are enough similarities between the two aides to fill a whole day of speculation about the underappreciated power of the new press aides.
Lally is also the bravado of Kelly's office: a gregarious former basketball player who won his first job with Kelly by promising him two aides for the price of one. (The other aide in the bargain was John McDonough, who is now Kelly's legislative aide.) Lally is the man who brought French designer suits to Upper Marlboro and an obsession for press conferences, for media events and for seeing Kelly's name in the newspapers.
Partly to get the magic name recognition, Lally helped Kelly author a plethora of new political programs, among them the tenant tax.
The county delegation bought that one. It pushed the tax through the state legislature, two years in a row, giving Kelly his needed authority. But this session's tax concoction met more resistance.
The Lally-Kelly scheme went too far in the view of many delegates. Not only was the tax unpopular, a plan to divide the property tax into three rates, but the two politicians oversold they took it to the delegation.
And they are two politicians, a point that distinguishes them from the old Mandel-DeFilippo team. DeFilippo was a reporter for the Baltimore News-American before he accepted his post with Mandel.And when time came for him to resign, DeFilippo went to a prestigious suburban Baltimore advertising firm.
The short political life of John Lally, though, has been completely taken up with politics: from Bladensburg High School, where he was class president, to the county office bued political adviser, to next year's election when he hopes to run for some county position.