For the past 15 months, former U.S. attorney Stephen H. Sachs has been breaking political tradition in Maryland.
He is campaigning for attorney general but has refused to align himself with any slate or candidate for higher office. He has no political organization behind him to help him raise funds and is, in fact, personally despised by many of Baltimore's old-guard politicians. He is going it alone.
But unlike others in Maryland who have tried before, he is being taken seriously and may even be establishing a near-lock on his party's nomination.
Last week, he held a fund-raising affair which drew 1,600 people, including many of the more established candidates for statewide office. He has raised almost $200,000 - a sum generally reserved at this stage for front-runners. He has thousands of volunteers helping him.
Sachs, 44, has "the appearance of being far ahead," said one politician. And even though the choosing of sides - the slate-making - that may formally pit other Democrats against him for the September Democratic primary won't happen until spring, "at this point the appearance is what counts."
Sachs is the strikingly youthful looking and high-priced Baltimore lawyer who, as U.S. attorney between 1967 and 1970, prosecuted a Prince Georges County Commissioner, a speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, an Eastern Shore congressman and a U.S. senator. He also helped train a coterie of less experienced prosecutors - including current Asst. U.S. Attorney Barnet D. Skolnik who prosecuted suspended Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel - who are identified closely with him.
That is one reason he is unpopular among many old-line politicians. Another is that as a private practice lawyear he has represented several witnesses who have made deals with the government and testified against such powerful figures as Spiro T. Agnew and Marvin Mandel.
"You hear intensively and surprisingly from a lot of quarters that old scores will be settled to deprive Steve of this office," said a Baltimore politician who had heard the rumblings.
Sachs has cultivated support among his natural constituency, the liberal Jewish voters of his native Baltimore. He's backed by Jerry Hoffberger, owner of Baltimore Orioles; Calman Zamoski, a millionaire businessman, and Robert Embry, the influential former city housing commissioner who currently is deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Yet Sachs had foraged into Baltimore neighborhoods - black and white - presided over by Democratic bosses. Outside the city, he has concentrated in areas where he has been "effectively unknown."
To the east Baltimore County voters whom he perceives as "independent-minded," Sachs has stressed he will be a "peoples' lawyer"in office. In the Washington suburbs, he has courted the legal establishment and "liberal wealthy intellectual group," as one Montgomery County legislator put it. Sachs already has made 43 speeches in Montgomery County and slightly fewer in Prince George's.
"With all that money he's raised, Sachs could pick his own ticket," remarked state Sen. Victor L. Crawford (D-Montgomery County). "Money talks."
Sachs insists he has "no intention of joining a ticket" through primary day next September. However, brash as it may seem, he also said he has "not excluded the possibility of endorsing one of more of the gubernatorial contenders."
That also is a departure from traditional ways. "No one looks at the attorney general as electing the governor," said Baltimore City Council President Walter Orlinsky, also a gubernatorial candidate.
"Steve's biggest asset is his natural charm, and his competency is readily seen once he starts to articulate," said State Sen. Melvin Steinberg, who attended the fundraiser but like most other politicians isn't making any commitments just yet.
Usually, the procedure is the other way around. After the legislature adjourns in April, leaders of Democratic organizations begin choosing their candidates for governor - or the candidates pick them - and the rest of the slates quickly fall into place. Consequently, the attorney general slots sometimes is filled with a gubernatorial hopeful who lost his first choice.
Sachs said he wants no part of this courting. The job of top lawyer in Maryland should not be offered "as a consolation prize," he said.
"Politicians are often like generals," said Sachs. "They're often fighting the last war. We're doing something new. This is not some navie idealism I'm espousing. It happens to be very good politics."
Sachs dismissed the components of the "so called Democratic organization" as a "paper tiger." "Their enmity I don't want," he said, "but their strength doesn't intimidate me."
His pitch is directed against corruption. In full-page ads he has taken out in Baltimore newspapers, he quotes freely from newspaper articles and editorials which described his work as U.S. attorney for Maryland.
In the ads he also boasts of the work he has done as a private lawyer for citizens groups in zoning and planning cases, without making reference to some of his other clients, such as convicted stock manipulator Joel Kline and race track owner Nathan Cohen, a leading witness in the Mandel case who himself faces an investigation in connection with zoning payoff allegations in Anne Arundel county.
Professional politicians in the state who are skeptical of the Sachs phenomenon cite recent private polls which they say show Sachs as an "unknown" in many areas of the state, running well behind Senate President Steny H. Hoyer, who might run for attorney general should he not succeed in the gubernatorial race.