In dealing with the public relations fallout of Maryland's seemingly endless savings and loan crisis, Gov. Harry Hughes appears to have taken a page from the late U.S. senator George Aiken.
Aiken, a Vermont Republican, is fondly remembered in Washington for his breathtakingly simple solution to the nation's agony over Vietnam: declare victory and bring the troops home.
In his state-of-the-state message to the General Assembly last week, Hughes declared victory by pretending that the massive financial calamity of the past eight months simply no longer exists.
Not once during the 21-minute speech did Hughes mention savings and loans, although he made an oblique reference by quoting one of the protest signs carried by depositors in recent demonstrations.
Whether his no-news-is-good-news strategy plays well with the Hughes needlessly alienated many lawmakers . . . . public will not be decided until the votes are cast in the U.S. Senate primary next September, but it didn't seem to go over with the assembly.
Hughes, whose public posture increasingly is crafted by his political advisers rather than his executive staff, has gotten off to a less-than-auspicious beginning in his final legislative session as governor.
All indications are that it could get worse.
By refusing to present his plan for paying off depositors at the three large thrifts where accounts are still frozen, Hughes needlessly alienated many lawmakers who had been urging him since October to have something in place before January.
By beginning his address with a promise of good news, Hughes led many legislators to believe he had solidified a deal for the acquisition of either Community or First Maryland Savings and Loan associations. When his speech amounted to only a glowing review of his accomplishments in the past seven years, there was widespread disappointment.
And in his $322 million proposal for paying off Old Court depositors and unloading First Maryland and Community, Hughes has infuriated legislators in the one area where he is most popular -- the Washington suburbs, particularly Montgomery County.
Montgomery lawmakers yelped that borrowing $100 million from the state's transportation fund to help pay for the savings and loan debacle would only cause further gridlock in their districts by delaying sorely needed road projects.
The governor's entire budget this year, said one Montgomery County political veteran, is an exercise in "hurting your friends to help your enemies."
Not only has the governor offered to help depositors -- who have been highly critical of him -- by offending Montgomery County, but he has furthered the insult by presenting a budget that is highly favorable to Baltimore at the expense of Montgomery.
Included in the spending plan is $14 million in new education money that would benefit Baltimore more than any other jurisdiction.
In addition, there is $2 million for the Baltimore Symphony and nearly $1 million in aid to the city's police department to establish foot patrols. A continuation of the subsidy for Montgomery's local bus service is nowhere to be found in the budget.
The governor is weakest politically in Baltimore, where the enormously popular mayor and gubernatorial candidate, William Donald Schaefer, can't say enough bad things about Hughes. But no amount of education and police aid is going to persuade Schaefer to throw Hughes anything but an anchor if the governor makes a bid for the U.S. Senate next fall.
"He's decided to take his political base and offend it to try and make hay elsewhere," said one political figure.
In his recent message to the state, Hughes hammered home his accomplishments, which are not inconsiderable but remain largely unknown to the voters, according to the governor's own polls.
The intent was clear: try to reverse the negatives on savings and loans by ignoring the issue while at the same time educate the public about the governor's record. Hughes' polls show that once the public is made aware of his accomplishments, the savings and loan problems will seem far less damaging.
But in playing to the public, Hughes may have forgotten that his first step toward political rehabilitation must be taken over the next three months with the legislature, for a bad session will only further dim his chances of becoming a senator.