Near the Capital Centre is a graceful building that houses the law offices of Peter F. O'Malley. It is an olf white mansion with a long drive curving through the lawns and leading to the front doorsteps - a Maryland version of Scarlett O'Hara's "Tara."
Last week one of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates chose that entryway as the backdrop for a press conference and, by week's end, another Democratic candidate had also used an old sailing ship and the steps of the Statehouse as press conference props.
Francis B. Burch, Maryland attorney general and the most conservative of the Democrats running for governor, has his aides notify the press that he would make an important statement outside O'Malley's office in Largo. O'Malley, one of the most powerful men in Prince George's County's reigning Democratic organization, wasn't in town for the press conference or the attack Burch made against him.
O'Malley, said Burch, represented the sort of political patronage that hurt Maryland. O'Malley is the close friend, confident and adviser to Steny H. Hoyer, candidate for lieutenant governor on the ticket of Acting Gov. Blair Lee III, Burch's chief opponent.
But Burch promised to abolish such patronage if elected. Burch, the millionaire who regularly has parceled out thousands of dollars in state legal business to his own friends, his own O'Malleys, said he found the practice of patronage abhorrent. That was it. Conference over. And in case a reporter was not able to drive over to Largo for the denunication, Burch staged a similar affair in Baltimore.
Theodore G. Venetoulis went Burch one further. The Baltimore County executive and populist candidate for governor held two open-air press conferences.
The first was at Baltimore's Inner Harbor, in front of the tall ship Constellation. Following what appears to be a new practice of "thematic press conventions," Venetoulis said he chose that site because the inner harbor is important to the city's well-being and he had just received an endorsement from an influential Baltimore City politician concerned about the city's survival. The portable television cameras caught all of that as well as the sweep of the ship's mast.
A few days later, Venetoulis' aides were on the telephone telling reporters to gather at the steps fo the State house in Annapolis for another meaningful press conference. This one lasted five minutes. Venetoulis announced that he was walking across the street to file his campaign financial statements ahead of the deadline and he challenged Lee to do the same.
It was a performance a day as candidates tried to capture the attention of reporters and take something away from Lee who by virtue of his views.
To complete the circle, Walter S. Orlinsky, Baltimore City Council president and gubernatorial candidate, held a press conference on Monday at his Baltimore headquarters to denounce the staged press conferences and declare himself a candidate of the issues.
"I hope everybody will appreciate how phony (the press conferences) are," said Lee at his own press conference one hour after Venetoulis' State-house steps performance. "On the steps of here, the steps of there - it's a lot of nothing.
It is a lot of Americana if nothing else. Reporters will write about the candidates without the stimulation of an early morning hand-out sheet. But the candidates want the upper-hand, the power to pose the issue rather than respond to reporters' questions. Especially now, just before the July 3 filing deadline, candidates are pursuing the press in hopes that newspaper coverage will strengthen their images with voters and campaign contributors.
"You don't like to accept this but The Washington Post does decide who is the legitimate candidate," said one of Lees's Montgomery County allies last week. "You make and break politicians."
Maryland politicians are little different than those in other states: the ones who walk across their Midwestern states to show their concern for the people, as if hiking is equated with responsible government; or those who promote themselves by laboring among the working classes of the South and then drop out as if to experience the throes fo unemployment.
The latest string of press events have turned this year's Maryland gubernatorial campaign into a "race" to see which candidate can send reporters running the fastest from Prince George's to Annapolis to Baltimore.
The humor of it all seems to be lost on the candidates who are running even harder around the state to find their constituencies. An Annapolis reporter who diligently scours the financial statements of the candidates asked Venetoulis last week if he would make his statements more legible, saying they were impossible to read. There was a chuckle from the reporters, a friendly one.
"Those statements are accessible and available . . . my campaign finances are not hidden," answered Venetoulis.
"No, that's not what I'm saying, I just can't read them," the reporterd answered.
Venetoulis stared at him and ended the press conference.