Paul Weisengoff, head of Baltimore City's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly, endorsed Theodore G. Venetoulis for governor yesterday and brought into the gubernatorial race for the first time the controversial question of where to locate a much-needed state prison.
Although he spoke about political independence and a need for a new Maryland, Weisengoff made it clear that the successful promotion by Acting Gov. Blair Lee III of a new prison in Weisengoff's district in south Baltimore was the chief reason why he endorsed Venetoulis, the Baltimore county executive.
"Certainly Fort Armistead (the prison site) has something to do about my decision," said Weisengoff, who is the first significant Baltimore politician to make an endorsement of a gubernatorial candidate. "It's important to have a governor who is absolutely behind the city."
Venetoulis, who held a lunch-time press conference at the city's inner harbour to announce the endorsement, went on to criticize Lee for "bungling the prison decision by pitting neighborhood against neighborhood. That's not a governor who makes rational decisions."
The long history of the prison site argument began when suspended Gov-Marvin Mandel won legislative approval in 1977 to put the prison in east Baltimore, at the site of the empty Continental Can factory.
East Baltimore has one of the strongest community-based activist groups in the state and after a long campaign, these citizens convinced Lee and the legislature to switch sites.
At this year's seasion, Lee suggested that the prison be built at the old Fort Armstead site instead of in East Baltimore. The legislature eventually approved, although Weisengoff was a loud and bitter opponent of the site.
"My district will go with Venetoulis," Weisengoff said. "They haven't forgotten Fort Armistead."
State Sen. Harry J. McGuirk, who represents the same district as Weisengoff, has yet to make an endorsement although he is considered to be Lee's candidate to become the next president of the Maryland Senate. The reason for the delay, McGuirk said yesterday, was he needed "time to study the prison issue."
"The prison will be the major issue in the city," McGuirk said. "I imagine we - the Stonewall Democratic Club - are leaning towards Lee but we've giving more time to study the prison."
The political marriage of Venetoulis and Weisengoff was described by both men as a joining of political independents a characterization which was questioned by city politicians.
"Weisengoff as an independent? That's a new word for it," said Del. Charles S. Krysiak, who represents east Baltimore but is a friend of Weisengoff. "In the General Assembly he does a lot of wheeling and dealing for the city."
Weisengoff also passes out "walk-around money" to election day workers a form of political patronage condemned by Venetoulis. "I don't expect walk-around money from Ted," Weisengoff said at the press conference.
"In fact, you said you didn't want it," Ventoulis quickly added.
When Ventoulis was asked if there wasn't an incongruity between his avowed goal of "throwing the rascals out" and calling a press conference to announce an endorsement from an establishment figure Venetoulis smiled and said "no".
"I don't think anyone ever questioned Paul's independence," Venetoulis said. "What we criticize the acting governor for is his wheeling behind the scene for endorsements. There were no deals made between us. That's the difference.
Venetoulis favors the mayors's plan to place the prison near the city jail as does Attorney General Francis B. Burch, another candidate in the race. Burch even predicts that the site will revert back to east Baltimore and "further anger the citizens."
Blair Lee IV, campaign manager for his father, said that "if would have been a real boon for correctional experts said it wasn't feasible to builda prison near the jail. . . He did the conscientious thing."