When the governor, the mayor of Baltimore, the Baltimore County executive, the speaker of the Maryland House and the president of the state Senate gathered around a table here recently for a joint news conference on transportation, the first question had little to do with concrete or mass transit.
"How many of you are running for governor?" asked a Baltimore radio reporter.
Flip as it was, the question was somewhat to the point. Of the five, only Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg is not in training for a run around the political track in 1986. Though Gov. Harry Hughes cannot run for another term and County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson is unlikely to run for the State House, they are positioning themselves for 1986 just as surely as the two gubernatorial candidates present, Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin and Mayor William D. Schaefer.
Little wonder then, that the dog-and-pony show put on to announce that the city would give up a $100 million busway to help fund a bridge on the Eastern Shore and a highway in Western Maryland generated as much discussion of political motives as it did roads.
When Schaefer, who steadfastly refuses to concede he is running for governor, was asked about the political ramifications of the city's sudden generosity, he seemed almost offended. "None," he replied.
But in 13 years as mayor, Schaefer has not earned a reputation as a man quick to pick up the check for other jurisdictions. Why, then, is he now willing to give up millions of dollars for a bridge over the Nanticoke River at Vienna, Md., and for completion of 18 miles of the National Freeway near Cumberland?
Schaefer suggested that completing those much-needed transporation projects would make it easier for people on the Lower Eastern Shore and Western Maryland to visit the Inner Harbor. All areas of Maryland are interdependent, he said.
Others suggested that it would make it easier for voters in those areas to see Schaefer as a governor who would not just favor Baltimore.
Another potential beneficiary of the shift in transportation funds is Hughes, who is looking more and more like a candidate for the seat of U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R) in 1986.
Hughes has been sending a number of signals recently that he does not intend to retire to the letterhead of a Baltimore blue chip law firm in January 1987, when he leaves the State House after eight years.
He has been quietly raising money -- ostensibly for a fund to defray some of the quasi-political obligations he incurs as governor. But as one observer noted, "nobody gives $500 to help the governor contribute to the Democratic governors political fund."
And when the time came to announce the selection of a board of directors for his institute to study extremism and violence, Hughes did it on the eve of Yom Kippur, an adroit piece of political timing.
If the news conference on transportation funding demonstrated nothing else, it showed that almost two years before the 1986 Democratic primary, nearly everything is being viewed in political terms.
That is why the 1985 legislative session promises to be so entertaining. Although the 90-day session that begins in January will probably lack much of the drama of last year, the various maneuverings of Hughes, Cardin, Schaefer et al will make it a political junkie's delight.
How much, for example, will Schaefer's sudden generosity on transportation dilute the traditional rural opposition to the Baltimore subway? Schaefer will be looking for construction funds for the third leg of his city's Metro to East Baltimore, and he obviously hopes that legislators from Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore will help him out.
Will Hughes, Cardin and Schaefer follow the lead of Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Stephen H. Sachs and endorse a new sports complex for Maryland?
For now, Maryland Democrats are trying hard to keep their personal ambitions in check as they campaign for the national Democratic ticket. But in less than three weeks, the distractions of national politics will go away, and they all can concentrate on the real business at hand: 1986.