It is the spring of an election year and cars around Maryland are sporting the emblems of aspiring candidates. A Volvo on Rte. 50 zooms by with a "Blair Lee for Governor" sticker plastered on its bumper next to another sticker that says "Steve Sachs for Attorney General."
On the Baltimore Beltway a Volkswagen displays the colors of Ted Venetoulis for Governor, Sachs for Attorney General. Driving into Washington on New York Avenue a car passes, decorated with the stark black sticker of Steny Hoyer for governor and - the inevitable - Sachs for Attorney General.
Sachs stickers have been mated indiscriminately with those of candidates for all offices; from governor to Montgomery County executive to Maryland House of Delegates. This flag-waving on the highways, like the $228,000 he has raised for his campaign, demonstrates how Stephen H. Sachs has pulled off something new in Maryland.
For the first time in recent history, the attorney general's race has been severed from the Gubernatorial campaign. This week sources in the camps of all six gubernatorial candidates said they did not plan to run an attorney general candidates on their tickets. Sachs has made himself into the only Democratic candidate.
But Sachs still expects an opponent, if only because he "believes in jinxes." Almost two years ago, when he announced his candidacy, Sachs said he did not plan to corner the market. Then he wanted to fashion the image that Sachs, 44, celebrated former prosecutor who convicted an Eastern Shore congressman and Prince George's County commissioner, would make "the best people's attorney for Maryland."
"That message is powerful to a public that has been manipulated, a public that feels it's been used," said Sachs. "That old crowd of politicians doesn't like me. I kicked them when they were up."
In the early '60s, Sachs was an assistant U.S. attorney who helped prosecute Maryland's savings and loan scandals. Then he became the crusading U.S. attorney for Maryland who orchestrated the prosecutions of several prominent figures on bribery and conflict-of-interest charges.
One year after Maryland's governor was convicted of political corruption, the issue of "honesty and integrity" has been taken by almost every candidate. Sachs has used it to his advantage. "There is a lot of rhetoric about political corruption in this campaign, but I did something about it. I prosecuted them and I think there's a concern that I'll do it again."
He has gone to hundreds of coffees and bull roasts reciting this record and telling Marylanders: "It's not my second choice, folks. I don't know how to be governor . . . You have to understand I am a lawyer. I want to make the law better so people can trust it more. The attorney general should make sure the state obeys the law, not be the shill for the government."
He often adds a throwaway line to punctuate his ideas about the role of attorney general and his own place in the state's history. "The attorney general ought to take the lead fighting corruption, but he hasn't. That's why Barney Skolnik, an assistant U.S. attorney, has had more to do with how we're governed than almost anyone we've elected. That's wrong, that's not democracy."
Skolnik, who prosecuted suspended governor Marvin mandel and former vice president Spiro T. Agnew, is one of Sachs' proteges.
Following his work as a prosecutor, Sachs represented clients as a private attorney whose testimony helped convict public officials. At Mandel's trial, Sachs represented race track owner Nathan M. Coehn who proved to be a key witness against the governor and his five codefendants.
That move deepened the intense dislike of him by some of the state's old power brokers. Irvin Kovens, convicted codefendant of Mandel and one of the state's premier fund-raisers and political godfathers, has told associates he would rather vote for a dog than Sachs. Mandel once wrote the Justice Department alleging that Sachs was part of a conspiracy out to get him.
Sachs says he knows Kovens is searching for a candidate to oppose him. "I'm sure he is looking. He's been quoted saying he'll go broke defeating me."
This concern about Kovens has worked to Sach's advantage. "There are people who would run ordinarily but they're afraid the press will label them a part of the 'get-Sachs' movement," contends gubernatorial candidate Walter S. Orlinsky. "He's done a brilliant job . . . nobody wants to take on Sachs. He's out there alone, a cul-de-sac."
At least two men have been approached to run against Sachs and both have declined. Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Solomon Liss refused to say who asked him to be candidate. "I said no. Timing is everything in politics and this (invitation) is probably 10 years too late."
Chief Judge Robert F. Sweeney of the Maryland District Court also received overtures within the past months from gubernatorial candidates. "I was flattered," he said, "But I didn't give it a second thought."
Acting Gov. Blair Lee, the front-runner in the gubernatorial race, said "the greater likelihood is that I will not have one (an attorney general candidate on his ticket). Each passing day Steve comes closer to preempting the field and winning it by default . . . It's no philosophical question, actually. It's primarily a political question. There's certainly no foot traffic of people saying they want to run for attorney general."
The familiar refrain from most gubernatorial camps is that Sachs' supporters are also their supporters. This explains, they say, why they cannot put up opposition to Sachs and it also gives the impression that their candidates will reap the benefits from Sachs' campaign.
The one exception is Francis B. Burch, the current attorney general and the only gubernatorial candidate running against Sachs. "Steve has spoken not so nicely about Bill Burch," said Philip Altfeld, manager for Burch.