Last spring, Theodore G. Venetoulis was standing in an elevator with his escort for a White House correspondents' association dinner. In stepped Jody Powell, press secretary for President Carter and Powell's wife, Nancy.
The door closed and Venetoulis immediately turned to Powell. "I'm Ted Venetoulis," he said, "Baltimore County executive, I ran Jerry Brown's campaign in Maryland."
Venetoulis' escort looked at him in bewilderment, wondering why he had just introduced himself to Powell as the man who had handed Carter a stunning defeat in the Maryland presidential primary. Powell replied that he remembered that primary, a full round of introductions followed, the elevator door opened and the Powells walked out into the dinner party. Venetoulis looked at his escort, who was chuckling. "You've got to say something so they remember your name," Venetoulis explained.
This was vintage Ted Venetoulis. He is a man who always has found ways to attract attention to himself and his accomplishments, either as a fledgling political writer, a political campaign manager. Baltimore County executive, or a man sharing an elevator with Jody Powell.
Of all the Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Maryland this year, he is the most openly ambitious politician, a man who traditionally has attached himself to people more famous than he, ones he has admired and emulated.
His critics say Venetoulis' friendships with famous people and his penchant for capturing attention are plain political gimmicks. Throughout his almost four-year administration as Baltimore County executive and during this campaign, he has been accused of being a man of style without substance. "He is the story that lies somewhere between the lip and the cup," charges Walter C. Orlinsky, a gubernatorial opponent.
Venetoulis also is a hard-worker, a man whose subordinates and colleagues uniformly describe as innovative and fair, a man "who is at his desk before you arrive and is always there when you leave." Few dispute that Baltimore county government was modernized and improved during his administration, in such baried ways as flood-plan protection and waste recovery programs to planned growth management and the breaking up of old political machines.
Venetoulis also admits mistakes easily and gracefully. He seems to have learned to make the most of his own flaws. He has many critics but his loyal admirers outnumber them. If this is gimmickry, it has been part of his character since he was an East Baltimore youth trying to achieve on a football field.
Then he was an under-sized 16-year-old, a good athlete who always made the first team but never starred.
Without giving up his positions on the senior teams, Venetoulis volunteered to coach the younger boys as well and there he found success. "Teddy Venetoulis," a Baltimore newspaper noted in 1950, "is believed to be the youngest football coach in the city and certainly the most youthful ever to lead a team into a bowl game."
He got to that position by becoming the close assistant to Utz Twardowicz, Venetoulis' first revered figure. He chose wisely. Twardowicz became one of Baltimore's great local heroes for his work with young boys, so much so that one of the city's largest parks is named for him. The lessons he imparted to the young Venetoulis - how to lead others - stuck.
A former player remembers 16-year-old Venetoulis like this: "He was an aggressive little guy who always played with kids bigger than him. He was very gutsy. He taught us how to play ball, how to study, how to win and lose. He always had time for you. He was super. All us kids looked up to him."
The thousands of volunteers in Venetoulis' gubernatorial organization have no less praise for him today. He is considered one of the most effective political organizers in the state, the manager of campaigns for former congressman Carlton Sickles, Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, Brown, and in part, his own 1974 race against the old Democratic machine in Baltimore County.
There is one more chapter to Venetoulis' life as a coach. His bowl team was victorious and he made his first television appearance. His mother remembers the day vividly: "He was so small for his age it made him bashful," said Flora Venetoulis.
"When the TV man asked him questions, all he would do was shrug his shoulders or shake his head. He never uttered a word and I was dying. My God, people will think I have a deaf and dumb son," she remembers telling himself. "When he got home I said 'Ted, you're taking speech lessons.' And he did, all through college."
This was the beginning of the Venetoulis education in public speaking, one that eventually produced a politician who instinctively moves towards crowds and, as an elected official, who sought out the public.
"As county executive I held town meetings, the first ones in Baltimore County," Venetoulis said. "I rode on garbage trucks, made district tours, opened up government meetings to the public, which I thought showed I was interested in an open government. Others called it a public relations stunt. It's a matter of perception but I know why I did what I did."
Almost 25 years passed between those speech lessons and Venetoulis' election. College, graduation from Towson State in 1955, one year of high school teaching and then the military draft brought Venetoulis to Washington where he discovered politics.
Stationed here with the Army counter-intelligence, clipping newspaper articles, Venetoulis was noat content to restrict himself to the task at hand. At the same time he earned a masters in education from Johns Hopkins University, preparing for what he expected to be his academic career.
Out of service, the enrolled in graduate school again with the aim of receiving a Ph. D. but he ended up with another masters, this one in government, and abandoned further study to take a job as administrative assistant to Rep. James Wright of Texas.
"The Texans ran the Hill at the time and it was a straight leap for me into politics and how the government runs," Venetoulis said. It was also a way for him to meet the next set of hero-figures in his life, former president John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert.
The Kennedy inspiration sustained him through the mid-1960s and like many others of his generation continues to provide him with an easily identifiable image: the big smile, the thick crop of hair, the energy.
As late as 1971, when the Kennedy image had been marred, Venetoulis remained a shameless admirer. For the epilogue of a college anthology he edited that year, then associate college professor Venetoulis wrote a tribute to the late president and what Venetoulis believed to be Kennedy's ability to "shatter myths, splinter cliches."
His six years working in Congress brought Venetoulis his first experience in Maryland politics. He became administrative aide to former Maryland Congressman Sickles, married his wife Eleni in 1965 and managed Sickles' unsuccessful try at the 1966 Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
After the Sickles defeat it was back to Baltimore County where Venetoulis became the first director of community services for Essex Community College and an associate professor. His critics enjoy deflating Venetoulis' description of himself as a writer-professor and regularly claim that he was fired in 1971. "That is absolutely untrue," says Dr. Vernon Wanty, president of the college. "He was a very bright young man and well-regarded. It was obvious then that he was interested in politics, which is why he resigned."
Despite his career changes, Venetoulis has been able to buy a comfortable home for himself and his parents and enough stocks to make his total net worth more than $100,000, according to his income tax returns and public disclosure statements.
In 1969, he took time off to promote his book "The House Shall Choose," a lackluster account of the two occasions when Congress chose the president after the voters failed to elect one. But this was the year of a potential deadlock in the presidential race and Venetoulis added an epilogue to his book predicting that neither Richard Nixon nor Hubert Humphrey would win. A cross-country tour followed, including election night commentary for a national network.
"It was over-written, I would never do it again," Venetoulis says today.
Two years later he was on leave again, to manage Schaefer's campaign and work with Irvin Kovens, the man who now is used to undermine Venetoulis' claim to be a new politician.
Kovens, convicted codefendant of suspended Gov. Marvin Mandel, then was the fund-raiser for the Schaefer campaign. Four years later, when Venetoulis made his first stab at winning an election for himself, some friends of Kovens contributed to Venetoulis' campaign, sending their money in envelopes bearing the return address of Kovens' furniture store.
It is at this point that the hypocrisy charge is leveled against Venetoulis. While running a campaign he described as the most open in the country's history, Venetoulis was asked if Kovens helped his effort. No, he replied then, Kovens was not involved. "I thought I spoke sincerely when I said that, okay?" Venetoulis' mismanagement of a private cable television company. It resurfaced in this election when The Baltimore Evening Sun reported last month that, as the head of the company, Venetoulis hired private detectives to investigate alleged underworld ties of a business rival who won the contested Baltimore County franchise. Venetoulis says he regrets the mistake.
"No matter what the problem, it always culminates in the charge that I am a man of style without substance. Forget my style, judge me by my record," Venetoulis replies.
Interviews with representatives of the police and teacher organizations the school superintendant, police chief and members of the executive staff in Baltimore County yielded little criticism of Venetoulis.
He uniformly received good marks as an administrator. "He has taken unnecessary competition out of the office. You know he's not going to let someone stab you in the back. He's interested in getting the job done," said Paul Gallagher, an executive aide.
Yet earlier in his gubernatorial campaign, Venetoulis said he expected only to "break even" with the voters in Baltimore County, although now his expectations are higher.
Venetoulis' greatest problems were with his council, where a group of council members earned the label "Fearsome Foursome" for their constant battles with Venetoulis. One of this group is Eugene L. Kibbe Jr., a Republican.
"Venetoulis comes out with programs, throws them into a task force and gives them to the future. He's turned Baltimore County into one great campaign headquarters," said Kibbe, who is running for county executive this year.
Despite such antagonism, Venetoulis managed to get more than 80 percent of his programs passed by the coucil. Under his administration, the county's property tax rate dropped by 22 cents, the county received a AAA bond rating for the first time, and the county got its first growth management program.
How much credit Venetoulis should take for these programs is a subject of television debates among the four Democratic gubernatorial candidates. Orlinsky points out that the council, not Venetoulis, did the actual slicing of the property tax. Orlinsky also wonders whether a county executive is responsible for earning a county's bond rating.
"There has not been a default on bonds on this county for 40 years and its growth rate has actually slowed down," said a Venetoulis aide. "So bond rating is assessed on how the government is managed. Venetoulis does get credit for the ungrading."
State Sen. John C. Coolahan, (D-Baltimore County) says Venetoulis is "very impressive legislation but it usually doesn't amount to a hill of beans," and Kibbe point to the over-billed Essex revitalization program in Eastern Baltimore County.
After promising in 1974 to push through immediate help for this aging area near the Bethlehem steel plant, Venetoulis has failed in four years to get anything off the drawing board. A consultant's study offered little help and some community members doubt that anything ever will happen.
"I suppose I'm a victim of my own rhetoric," Venetoulis says.