Last Thursday, Harry Hughes, seeking reelection as governor of Maryland, held one of his few news conferences of late, this one in the Montgomery County administration building in Rockville. A spokesman for the governor put out the word that something important would occur there, and five television crews and a slew of radio and newspaper reporters showed up.
When the governor arrived, trailed by beaming county politicians, he simply detailed final state approval for the I-370 highway spur, a $114 million project long sought by politicians, commuters and businesses in the vote-rich suburb.
The announcement, normally the stuff of a press release, gave Hughes widespread media coverage and demonstrated one of the benefits of running for office as the incumbent.
From making well-timed announcements of previously approved pork barrel projects to relying on a well-staffed press office and state troopers to shepherd him in and out of events, Hughes has an edge not available to his GOP challenger, Robert A. Pascal, the Anne Arundel county executive.
"I don't think there's any question it helps," said Pascal spokesman Jerry Lipson. "An incumbent has got the platform to make decisions, the pulpit to announce them from. There's also the term--The Governor--and wherever he travels there is the entourage, all of which creates an aura. And there's appointive powers -- in terms of influencing coalitions for support, he can make promises."
Hughes agrees that incumbency has advantages -- a greater familiarity with state programs and wider recognition by voters--but he said that in many ways it is easier to be the challenger. "Sure you get many more invitations as the incumbent but you have to turn many more people down," he said. "And a challenger can speak in generalities, use hit-and-run sort-of tactics that have some simplified appeal."
For most of his nearly four years in office, Hughes, unlike previous Maryland governors -- in particular Marvin Mandel -- consciously has shunned the political techniques of incumbency, often seeming to be an apolitical politician. But in this campaign, he apparently has come to appreciate the powerful office and has proven adept at using its glamour and celebrity status, information and perks, to make political friends and points.
In the last six months he has personally announced several public works projects that bring jobs and money to an area and positive publicity to the governor's office.
During last Friday's televised debate, Pascal complained that Hughes had authorized so many "last minute" road repair projects "that I could barely get to the television studio."
On a trip to the Eastern Shore, Hughes unveiled a new state multiservice center for downtown Salisbury. In Baltimore County there were funds for the rehabilitation of historical St. Johns Church.
And in Frederick, he helped arrange a low-interest loan of state money to the city to buy the old post office from the federal government. The project, pushed by city activists and Mayor Ronald N. Young, who ran Hughes campaign in the primary, drew praise and publicity for Hughes. Only a few skeptics recalled that this was an election year.
"What's the state doing buying a post office?" said Republican State Sen. Edward P. Thomas. "I thought he wasn't going to use his office for those types of things. Let me tell you, his halo's on tilt in Frederick County."
In dozens of other instances, when Hughes himself did not appear, releases from his five-person press office did. Since May, the press office has announced the elimination of tolls on a commuter section of I-95, the opening of a previously announced pilot program for Maryland's elderly and the start of a low-interest mortgage program. The latter came just days before the primary -- a coincidence, the governor's staff said -- and was simply an update of an earlier release.
In appointments, one of the greatest advantages of incumbency, Hughes for the most part has been less political than past governors but, with election looming, he has shown increasing sensitivity to the needs of important political groups. He appointed State Sen. John J. Garrity (D-Prince George's) to a seat on the Court of Special Appeals after his Senate seat was eliminated by redistricting. Shortly after the move, the Prince George's political establishment endorsed Hughes for reelection.
The Hughes administration helped solve another political problem when it offered Baltimore County Del. Daniel J. Minnick Jr., the speaker pro-tem of the House of Delegates, a job in the state's licensing and regulation division.
While Hughes acknowledges that announcements and news conferences can help an incumbent, he said he is cautious about using these for his reelection effort.
"If I really wanted to be political, there are hundreds of things I could announce and I haven't," he said. "But should I not announce something such as I-370 or the Salisbury multiservice center because it's going to look political?"
The perquisite that most frustrates the Pascal camp is Hughes ability to travel in style. Several times a month he uses the state police helicopter to crisscross Maryland on official government business--and some of those visits coincide with campaign events.
Last summer when other candidates drove several hours through the heat to a well-attended Eastern Shore crab feast, Hughes came in by helicopter. And just after he announced that his new running mate would be State Sen. J. Joseph Curran Jr., the two men and their wives traveled by helicopter to the Delmarva Chicken Festival in Easton.
In neither instance was the use of a helicopter technically improper, since Hughes was attending both events in response to official invitations extended annually to the person occupying the Governor's Mansion. (Hughes' staff said Curran probably should not have accompanied the governor to the Chicken festival). On days devoted entirely to the campaign, Hughes has leased a private helicopter.
The perks of office aside, Hughes greatest edge may be the celebrity status he has simply because he is The Governor, an advantage clearly visible when both candidates attended the Montgomery County Fair.
For Hughes' arrival, press releases were distributed, advance people fanned through the crowds, and state troopers guided the governor around the grounds as the county's elected officials surrounded him. "There was a whole governmental wing working that is used to moving the governor around," said one member of the Hughes' campaign. "And there was this instant crowd."
When Pascal arrived, he was greeted by the Fair director, quickly given a tour and then directed toward the crowds. "He basically had to make it on his own," said one participant. "He basically had to pursue people, jump them. That's why everyone likes to be the incumbent."