Back in the summer of 1966, after deciding to write his senior thesis on Maryland politics, Blair Lee IV joined the gubernatorial campaign staff of then Rep. Carlton R. Sickles (D-At Large). "I can remember sitting there on election night taking notes," Lee says.
Today, Lee is back in Maryland politics, this time as the campaign manager for his father, acting Gov. Blair Lee III. But now that he is running the campaign show, the younger Lee looks on the 1966 race as much more than the academic pastime of a college boy.
Many of the campaign figures in today's Democratic primary cut their political teeth in 1966. They replay their experiences at cocktail parties and strategy sessions, drawing analogies to the current race and applying the lessons of 12 years ago.
"My foot prints are all over the state," remarked Sickles, whose 1966 bid served as a sort of training ground for some of today's campaign strategists. "My campaign was the wave of the future, the kind of politics the state needed. I was just a decade ahead of myself."
Sickles, who lost by less then 2,000 votes, probably left the largest imprint on today's gubernatorial drive of Theodore G. Venetoulis, whose campaign manager, Jackie Smelkinson, ran Sickles' statewide headquarters in 1966 and headed up "Sickles Score" of volunteers.
Some of the "reform" campaign rhetoric of the Sickles drive has trickled into the Venetoulis campaign, such as "No more politics as usual."
The Sickles platform called for a "New Leadership." Venetoulis, the Baltimore County executive, calls for a "New Maryland."
But Smelkinson has pointedly tried to avoid certain pitfalls of the Sickles campaign. The most crucial problems of 12 years ago, she recalls, was Sickles' blase attitude towards stumping. "He was always kvetching (complaining) and always feeling put upon," she said.
So when Venetoulis was considering a statewide race more than a year ago, Smelkinson said. she insisted that he commit himself "to be a 100 percent candidate. If that problem had been sovled in 1966, Carlton Sickles would have been governor and the rest would have been history."
Carlton didn't understand the value of personal campaigning in the streets," said Venetoulis, an energetic stumper who served as Sickles' congressional aide and a 1966 campaign strategist. "He often canceled dates and lost the enthusiasm of his own people."
One lasting legacy of the Sickles campaign is the intense debate among his past supporters as to why he lost. He was considered a frontrunner for most of the race, a Maryland congressman at-large with the strong backing of liberals and labor and a reputation for intergrity.
Blair Lee, IV, who earned an A on his college thesis, "Backlash in Maryland," blames Sickles' narrow loss on the peculiar social climate of the time. George P. Mahoney, a maverick Democrat, won the primary largely by fanning racial fears of open housing.
"There was a lot of social division then," recalled the younger Lee. "You had race riots in the newspapers every day. The sound trucks were going through the neighborhood saying housing. The people wanted to send a message."
Blair Lee IV, who is known as "B-IV," observed the 1966 campaign from the front seat of a car as the chauffeur for the candidate's wife, Simmy Sickles. Today, he runs his father's campaign with round-the-clock devotion from a basement office in the Baltimore campaign headquarters.
Among the lessons of 1966, he said, was that labor doesn't always deliver the votes it promises. That lesson is important today because Venetoulis is relying on labor's support to supply the votes, contributions and volunteers to augment his campaign.
Sickles,a Washington lawyer [WORD ILLEGIBLE] member of the Washington [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Transit Commission, says he is proud to have spawned some of today's principal campaign figures. But he said, that analyzing the contest of 12 years ago remains a painful process for him.
"The election," Sickle said in an interview, "was just sort of a reflection of the time. I came within a hair's breadth of winning. But I think you can just drive yourself crazy thinking about it, so I choose not to."