Nick Venet (pronounced va-NAY) has been a record producer in Los Angeles for some 20 years and is now a one-man corporation called "Summerwind Productions."
"I was in the record business long before it was chic and I've been successful at it," said Venet. "I'm a cocky s.o.b. - we all are."
The "we" includes his older brother Theodore G. Venetoulis, a Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland and soon-to-be beneficiary of the talents of his brother Nick, who cut his own family name in half when he went out West.
"Nicky and Stevie (the youngest brother a professional songwriter) will both come back and campaign for me," said Venetoulis. "Stevie wants to write songs for me but I think they'll be difficult to use."
Venetoulis, Baltimore County Executive and the man acting Go . Blair Lee III has told the associates is his strongest opponent, is the acknowledged master of artful campaigning in the Maryland gubernatorial race.
Gus Venetoulis, native of the island of Rhodes and patriarch of this Greek-American family, already is a star on the campaign. At functions he generally sticks close to his son the candidate and reaches out to embrace the men and kiss startled women.It is all very appropriate for the family of the candidate who describes himself as the choice of urban ethnics.
The presence of the entire Venetoulis family - parents, brothers and sisters, wife Eleni and son Kostantinos as well as nieces and nephews - also is important to the candidate who so openly emulates the Kennedy style.
His slogan, unveiled Monday night, is not actually "The new Frontier." It is "Venetoulis for a New Maryland." His hair is razor-cut and brushed full onto his forehead. His campaign is run on Kennedy-style energy: he works some 100 hours a week, he has 5,000 young volunteers canvassing the state and he claims that enthusiasm rather than money will put him in the governor's mansion this November.
The analygy can be taken even further. Just as John F. Kennedy and his brothers did. Venetoulis campaigns as a fresh face, even though he has had years of experience within establishment politics.
Venetoulis has managed six major campaigns in the last 15 years; all but one were successul. He worked as the key campaign aide to Carlton Sickles - a former congresswoman whose 1966 gubernatorial race represents the one loss in Venetoulis' experience - managed the successful campaign of Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer.
He has also written two political books: "The House Shall Choose" and "Up Against The Urban Wall." The first book gained him noteriety during the 1968 presidential campaign because it predicted that the race would end in a dead heat with the House of Representatives selecting the president.
His theory was wrong - "I gambled," he said later - but it put him on television. "On election day 1968 I was on the Today show that morning and on election night I traveled with [Democrat vice presidential candidate Edmund G. Muskie] in case I was needed for comment. It was really interesting, it just seemed to happen in a nice way."
In fact, few things in Venetoulis' life have ever "just happened." His hard work is legendary. Supposedly, he was surprised by the success of his kick-off campaign fund-raiser Monday night. His staff had planned for 1,700 guests, at $50 a person. Instead, 2,400 showed up and caused a one-hour traffic jam outside the Baltimore County party.
Yet, the preparations were worthy of the crowd. All day his volunteers had worked putting up $5,800 worth of decorations and watching an unusually detailed menu being prepared. "Oyster Venetoulis" headed the list, an original creation for the evening, the recipe loosely based on Oysters Rockefeller.
Venetoulis' only campaign as a candidate, his 1974 race for country executive, has been widely called a "fluke." He just wasn't supposed to win against his seasoned political opponents. But his chief aide, Jacqueline Smelkinson says that in a way she and Venetoulis, who are longtime friends, had been planning for it all their adult lives.
"We first met in Young Democrat in the early '60s," said Smelkinson. "We were absolutely nobodies and we have thought of ourselves as independents . . . But Ted and I would get together regularly and we'd talk strategy; how different candidates were doing, and how we would do it better. "We'd talk basic political philosophy, the science of politics - that's our forte."
Fourteen years after they met, after Venetoulis had left politics temporarily to go back to teaching at Towson State College, Smelkinson remembers receiving a telephone call from her old political friend. "He said he might run for county executive because the candidate he was grooming decided not to run. I said it was ridiculous idea, what an absurd idea, you can't do it."
Smelkinson said every other political observer she contacted during two days of hectic telephone calls agreed with her. "But he didn't have anything to lose but energy," she said. "And it was intriguing. We could test out all our ideas about a model campaign.
"That is what it was," she said. "It was a model campaign, and we won."
Smelkinson will be Venetoulis' campaign manager again this year. His statewide coordinator is Steve Golobter, a 29-year-old veteran of the 1976 Lanny Davis campaign for Montgomery County congressional seat. Davis the Democratic county and Golobter says, "I didn't learn all the mistakes Lanny made until I started working with Ted."
"The problems had more to do with Lenny, his maturity, than any strategy," said Golobter. "I'm impressed with the temperment of Ted, he is very even-keeled."
It was a trait mentioned by others who have worked with Venetoulis. Even Baltimore area reporters who feel suspicious about him, say that Venetoulis has yet to lose his temper with a reporter. It was this press that also gave Venetoulis his widely used nickname, "TV Teddy."
The suspicions, the nicknames, stem from skepticism within the political establishment about Venetoulis' repeated assertions that he is an idealist and that he will buck the establishment, which, he says, made corruption a way of life in Maryland politics.
"The only way I can win is if the people of Maryland really want change," he says: "My campaign is built on that assumption."
Even though Democratic candidates Lee, State Sen. Steny Hoyer and Attorney General Francis B. Burch are part of the establishment, they have never been implicated in the notorious scandals of the last decade. In fact Hoyer's testimony at the trial of suspended Gov. Marvin Mandel aided the prosecution.
The other candidates - Walter Orlinsky, Baltimore City Council president, and Hughes, former state secretary of transportation - are even further outside the inner world of Maryland politics than Venetoulis.
His opponents charge that he could not receive establishment support if he wanted it, that he will not even carry his own county in the September primary because he has so upset the voters with his crusading rhetoric.
Within the Maryland political establishment, there is also constant talk about Venetoulis' connection with Irvin Kovens, convicted codefendant with Marvin Mandel and once the premier fund-raiser in the state. In Venetoulis' last campaign, a few of Kovens' friends donated some $2,000 envelopes marked with the return address of Kovens' business.
Venetoulis then denied that Kovens had anything to do with his campaign - a denial that Smelkinson, his aide, was later force to qualify.
"I'm determined not to allow that issue, that irrelevant issue, to be used by my opposition to take people's attention away from the real issues of the campaign," Venetoulis said. "I thought I spoke sincerely when I said Irvin Kovens was not involved in my campaign, okay?"
Venetoulis says the real issue in the campaign is openness. By watching how he runs his campaign, he says voters will know that he is the honest candidate. "It's all part of the same process, campaigning and government."
But Venetoulis' campaign has been set apart more by style - by his family, by the dazzling performances he has mounted - than by any substantive differences from his opponents.
He announced his candidacy with a street fair, and his fundraiser last Monday night was a masterful production: a hall decorated like a convention; sirens interrupting a Venetoulis speech urging volunteers to take to the streets.
"I think Kennedy left a legacy that only now is being realized," said his brother Nick. "My brother is part of it."