There were a lot of smiling faces at the reception held last Friday night by the Prince George's Black Democratic Council, but no one smiled more broadly or shook hands with any more confidence than Baltimore City Council President Clarence H. (Du) Burns.
The official spotlight shone on Burns' leader, Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, the scheduled keynote speaker at the fete for Judges Arthur A. Ahalt and G.R. Hovey Johnson, who are seeking to retain their Circuit Court seats.
Ahalt and Johnson mingled with the crowd, but it was clear from the moment the mayor alighted from his limousine at Oxon Hill Manor that the more than 200 well-dressed persons who attended were as interested in Schaefer's statewide aspirations as they were in Prince George's County politics.
The reasoning, as the president of the Prince George's Black Democratic Council, Linwood Jones, outlined it, goes like this:
*Schaefer will decide to run for governor in 1986, ending statewide speculation about his political future.
*Schaefer will win the governor's seat and leave Baltimore for Annapolis.
*City Council head Burns, who is black, will, as called for in the city charter, take over as mayor and put in 11 months on the job before facing reelection.
Jones and other black politicians like this scenario because it guarantees a quick and easy way to get a black person in as mayor of Baltimore, a position of statewide importance.
"That was a strong consideration," Jones said after his group welcomed Schaefer and Burns warmly in Oxon Hill. "We think a lot of Du Burns. We think a lot of Mayor Schaefer."
"With him running for governor, it makes it easy for Du Burns to be mayor of the city, and I'm in favor of that," said Floyd Wilson, who became the first black chairman of the Prince George's County Council last year.
The notion of Burns stepping into one of the highest offices in the state is not a new one. Last year when Schaefer was challenged by former city Circuit Court Judge William H. Murphy, who is black, black pols who supported Schaefer suggested to voters that the city could, in the long run, get its first black mayor if Schaefer were reelected and Burns became council president.
Burns acknowledged that people have mentioned this to him, and says he hasn't minded the talk of succession at all.
"I think it's a good thing," he said. "But I don't pay too much attention to that. I am doing whatever I can to get this guy to be the governor -- if he wants to be."
Schaefer, as has been his practice in previous campaign seasons, plays coy about his electoral intentions, even though he shows up increasingly in areas that are far from his city stomping grounds.
"This is not unusual," he said at the reception. "We've gone all over the state.
"When you're not a candidate you get invited," he added innocently.
Schaefer makes a point in his speeches around the state these days of saying that whatever is good for Baltimore is good for the state, a premise he has had difficulty selling outside the city.
But in Prince George's County, which has allied itself with Baltimore during recent General Assembly sessions, the message is well received.
Prince George's and Baltimore "have so many things in common," Schaefer points out. "We both have a lot of poor people. They've got TRIM to overcome. We've got a tax rate of $6 per $100 of assessed value that can't go any higher."
TRIM is the tax revenue limitation measure that Prince George's residents made a part of their charter in 1978. County officials, who say Prince George's has been fiscally strapped since TRIM took effect, are in the midst of a campaign to loosen the cap.
Schaefer was the darling of the evening, as a succession of county politicians such as U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer and State Sen. Frank Komenda took turns pulling him aside for chats about endorsements, the 1986 election and General Assembly initiatives.
And aloud, they said things about him that would please the most anxious gubernatorial aspirant.
Burns, who became the city's first black council president after his predecessor was jailed on extortion charges in 1982, relishes his role as Schaefer's lieutenant. He once said that being "in the mayor's pocket" was a good place to be.
Would he like to be out of the mayor's pocket and into the mayor's office in a year or two?
"You know me," he said, grinning. "I'm a person who crosses bridges when he gets to them.
"But it would be the first time in my life that something was handed to me on a silver platter," he added. "And it's a damned good spot to be in."