Just a few minutes after the Maryland legislature adjourned yesterday from its first special session in seven years, Gov. Harry Hughes strode into an ornate ceremonial office in the statehouse to face six television cameras, dozens of reporters and a roomful of labor leaders and legislators.
Beaming and confident, Hughes joked and posed for photographs as he signed emergency legislation that he had proposed to solve a looming crisis caused by the cutoff of federal unemployment benefits in Maryland. When the ceremony ended 10 minutes later, the normally reserved governor retreated to his private office, exuberantly telling his staff that he was "pleased. I think everything worked out quite well."
Hughes, a Democrat who is up for reelection, had reason to feel satisfied: For a week he had succeeded in putting the increasingly heated governor's race on hold, converting himself from Candidate Hughes, one among others, back to Governor Hughes, the hard-working head of state.
Just when his major opponents, Democratic State Sen. Harry J. McGuirk and Republican Anne Arundel County Executive Robert A. Pascal, were beginning to get wide exposure, Hughes reclaimed the spotlight, dominating the news each day with his call for an "extraordinary session" and his oft-stated efforts to overcome the "insensitivity" of the Reagan administration.
"This issue has been tailor-made for a campaign because there wasn't much else to focus on except this," said one Democratic legislative leader. "It follows Hughes' politicial career: a lot of luck. He didn't create this issue, it just fell into his lap. The timing of it and everything else is Hughes--Hughes' luck."
In seizing an issue that Maryland's labor unions had made a test for political endorsement, Hughes found himself at the front of an issue supported by nearly everyone: business, legislative leaders and even his opponents, who found their own press conferences shunted aside.
"It was a moral thing to do and it was a good political thing to do," conceded Pascal, who pointed out that he had proposed a special session before Hughes did. Pascal, like all of the candidates, is wooing labor support and carefully has distanced himself from Reagan policies, which are unpopular in this heavily Democratic state.
Hughes recently has started focusing on the Republican administration as a campaign issue. When laws that Reagan supported, coupled with a drop in state unemployment, forced 11,000 Maryland workers to lose their jobless benefits, Hughes used the opportunity to chastise the administration for "insensitivity."
But the political significance of the last week was less in the rhetorical points that Hughes scored off Reaganomics than in the chance it gave him to chip away at his lingering image problems.
For three years Hughes has been plagued by a widespread image of indecisiveness, even ineffectiveness--factors cited in statewide polls as reasons for dissatisfaction with the governor. He was known as the governor who for two years couldn't make up his mind on a gasoline tax, who flip-flopped on prison policies, reversed himself on interest-rate deregulation, and lost several major bills because he was too aloof from the legislature and waited too long to submit his proposals. The word in Annapolis was that the legislature ran the governor and the state, not the other way around.
In the last year, however, with elections scheduled for this fall, Hughes has been intent on remaking that image. He has exhibited a new-found willingness to broadcast his accomplishments and to display his leadership abilities with the legislature. He has begun to use press conferences and press releases to get himself in the news more often, and has been more willing to depart from his apolitical style and use his appointment powers to force rebellious lawmakers into line. Nonetheless, Pascal, McGuirk and others have sought to make a campaign issue of Hughes' lack of leadership abilities. "We need someone who will act, not react," said McGuirk, echoing a theme of the Pascal campaign. So far, this has been the only issue Hughes' opponents have found in their efforts put him on the defensive.
It was important, therefore, for Hughes to ensure that the special session went well--a good probability, since most legislators were sure to support the bill even without the governor's intervention. Hughes and his staff worked with legislative leaders to avoid friction, eliminate challenges to gubernatorial vetos that might have indicated Hughes was weak, and produce a well-orchestrated event to show that the governor could--when he tried--lead.
Hughes and his staffers brushed aside suggestions that in many ways the special session was a carefully-crafted political event, saying that his quick response to the problem--with a show of speed unusually dramatic for the usually low-key governor--was because of the "seriousness" of the problem. Said Hughes: "It was a question of fairness," not politics.
But when the session was over and the unemployment bill had become Maryland's newest law, everyone, including Hughes's staff, agreed that the governor had won political points.
"I don't think there's any question that the governor gained," said State Sen. Edward P. Thomas (R-Frederick). "It was to his advantage because he was in the limelight, the subject of media attention. Certainly he used it to his advantage and I don't fault him for that, because that's politics."