On Aug. 23, the mid-day count from the campaign headquarters of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Theodore G. Venetoulis was in. With 53 precinct captains reporting from around the state, the score stood 2,569 voters for Venetoulis, 4,981 undecided, 1,050 for others and 4,000 vacant houses.
Upstate. At 2:45 p.m. Steve Gelobter, the field operations director, receives the first Montgomery County precinct report in the mail. A Potomac precinct captain and his volunteers finished their door-to-door canvas and are reporting their findings: 83 voters for Venetaulis, 15 undecided, 3 for other candidates.
It will go on like this, day after day, until the Sept. 12 primary when Gelobter hopes to have listed every person in the state's 1,500 precints who has said he will vote for Venetoulis. All the figures will come from the house-by-house canvassing that began this week.
This state-wide canvassing is the end product of the one campaign that has stressed organization far more than any other in the Maryland gubernatorial primary contest. Venetoulis has staked his election chances as much on an elaborate volunteer network as he has on his well-groomed public image and certainly more than on his campaign fund-raising and his voluminous issue papers.
It began in the summer of 1977 as a meeting of a couple of dozen prospective volunteers. Since it grown with precision, into a highly structured, old-fashioned political organization. There are 13 Venetoulis county headquarters. For each, there are county coordinators, district coordinators, precinct captains, office staff, advance teams, flying squads and plain envelope stuffers.
Like most challengers, Venetoulis, the Baltimore County executive, has had to build this army, optimistically considered to be 10,000 people strong, almost entirely from scratch.
Jackie Smelkinson, campaign manager for Venetoulis, said her strategy has always been centered on volunteers, rather than concentrating on numerous fund-raising tactics. She believes this strategy takes advantage of Venetoulis' talent for organizing and makes sense for a candidate who has never run state-wide before.
"There's nothing magical about this. It's just hard work." Smelkinson said. "It's how Tammy Hall worked except their people were paid or were patronage. Ours are volunteers. If a Tammy Hall precinct worker didn't deliver, he'd lose his job. If our volunteers can't find the voters, it means Ted Venetoulis loses the election. It's that simple."
As she sees it, there are two parts to a campaign: candidate's message, and the organization that carries the message to the voters. However, her view apparently is not shared by any of Venetoulis' opponents, Acting Gov. Blair Lee III, Harry R. Hughes and Walter S. Orlinsky.
Challengers Hughes, the former state secretary of transportation, and Orlinsky, the Baltimore City Council president, have only modest volunteer networks and are counting on the media to attract voters, either through paid advertisements or news coverage. Lee, as the incumbent, has both traditional political organizational support and the healthiest advertising budget of the Democratic candidates.
Almost two years ago, when Venetoulis first flirted with the idea of running for governor, he began ploting how to fill the state with volunteers. Since then, everything he has done has been geared to that end: His campaign schedule is built around requests from volunteers. His neighborhood caravans appear when volunteers are planning canvasses. Even his stylized image as a charming reformer has been used as much to attract volunteers as voters.
The first stage was coffees, teas, cocktail parties - any event at any house where Venetoulis could meet Marylands around the state and coax out volunteers. To a great extent, that strategy worked.
Doris Welch is an example. One year ago, she attended an Ocean City dinner for Venetoulis when he still was an undeclared candidate. This summer she is an Anne Arundel County precinct captain, a full-time volunteer at the age of 30 who has leased out her auction business until the Venetoulis campaign is over. She has never worked in a campaign before, "unless you count stuffing envelopes."
"I know it doesn't make sense. My friends keep saying, 'could you tell me again why you're doing this'? I guess it's because I'd like to believe things are going to be different. Since I met Ted I've liked what he's said and he's been very nice. I don't think he would do the silly, petty dumb things Mandel did. I don't want a dumb governot," she said.
That ability to convince people that he is "nice," that he should be called "Ted," and that he will come through on his word accounts for the new faces in his volunteer brigades.
Venetoulis has used other, time-honored techniques to recruit volunteers familiar to politics. He has revived old networks of support for politicians whose campaigns he once managed. His Price George's County volunteer staff is studded with people who got to know Venetoulis when he managed the campaigns of former Congressman Carlton Sickles.
He also ran the 1970 campaign of Baltimore's mayor William Donald Schaefer and the 1976 Maryland presidential primary campaign of California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. Both efforts were successful and both have left Venetoulis with a legacy of volunteers, especially around Baltimore City.
In Montgomery County, Venetoulis has tapped into the network built by Congressional candidate Lanny Davis as well as pieces of other Democratic coalitions in the county. He has added to these local pockets of support the volunteers earned from two major endorsements: that of the Maryland Education Association, the state's teachers union, and that of the political arm of Maryland's AFL-CIO.
The sheer feat of assembling such an organization has won the admiration of Venetoulis's opponents. "I'll give him that much. Ted is one of the best organizers I've seen in Maryland," said a member of an opposing camp. "If he's got a shot an winning it will come from his organization."
With these volunteers, nothing has been left to chance. First, the final goal was decided. Smelkinson figured 250,000 votes were necessary for a Venetoulis victory in the predicted 550,000 to 600,000 Maryland Democrats vote in the primary.
Each of the 1,500 precincts in the state was given a goal: to produce a set number of Venetoulis voters. Smelkinson and headquarters staff members reviewed the 1970, 1972, 1974 and 1976 primary results for each precinct, consulted with local volunteers and then sent out figures to precinct captains.
This week, after the first round of door-to-door canvassing, the captains are sending back their first field "progress reports."
"Steve," begins the mimeographed form, a salutation to Gelobter. "My main goal to assure a Venetoulis Victory on September 12th is to canvass (blank) registered Democrats during the month of August. By the end of August, I will exceed the projection for (blank) voters in favor of Venetoulis. I am pleased to report the following progress.. ."
These captains were lectured on how to canvass at a state-wide meeting attended by 500 captains and addressed by Venetoulis and his running mate, Ann Stockett.
At a recent canvass in Montgomery County, Vicki Thomas, a 19-year old Bethesda college student, made her first try at canvassing. "This is like the first political position I've ever held on my own, that my mother didn't have, and like I want to do okay," she explained.
Only two of the first 11 doors she knocked on were opened. She knew Alan Levine from her high school swimming team and Mr. Reines from the swim club up the street. Both still were undecided "number twos" on the Venetoulis charts. All 13 homes would have to be revisited.
Thomas' goal is producing 430 Venetoulis voters from among the 1,435 registered Democrats in her district. Since she failed to get all 430 on the first around, she and her five volunteers are returning to the empty houses and to the undecides until she finds the 430.
Three days before the election, the people identified as Venetoulis voters will be called and problems involving baby sitters or car pools will be dealt with. On election day, the polls will be watched and mid-day, late afternoon and early evening telephone calls will be made to Venetoulis voters who have yet to vote. Once the precinct count is in the results will be telephoned to Baltimore headquarters.
These are the same vigorous demands Venetoulis made of his volunteers in 1974, when he won the Baltimore County Executive race, replacing an entrenched county machine that had been scarred by the political corruption conviction of the last elected County Executive, Dale Anderson. The mechanics of Venetoulis' gubernatorial campaign organization were all tested in that, his only other race as a candidate.