Forget the Democratic race for governor between Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer and Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs. Forget the U.S. Senate contest, with its interesting possibilities on both the Republican and Democratic sides. Forget all the intrigue swirling around the topsy-turvy world of Montgomery County politics.
For pure elemental politics, the best little campaign in Maryland right now may just be the race to succeed House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore).
Cardin's decision to leave the House of Delegates and run for Congress, where he appears a shoo-in -- combined with his failure to groom a successor and the uncertainty over who Schaefer will pick as his running mate -- has opened up a contest of Machiavellian proportions in Annapolis.
Just consider what happened not long ago to Del. Nancy Murphy, a freshman delegate from Catonsville. It was politely suggested to Murphy by the chairman of the Baltimore County delegation that it would be far easier for her to retain her coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee if she pledged to support Del. Paul Weisengoff for speaker.
"It wasn't threatening," says Murphy. "It's just a fact of life."
The approach was vintage Weisengoff. The 20-year veteran of the House is a lifer in the rough and tumble politics practiced in his South Baltimore district. A crafty practitioner of the legislative arts, Weisengoff spends the better part of most legislative sessions holding court in the lounge, where he works over his cigars and, on behalf of the House leadership, his fellow delegates.
Since the session ended, however, Weisengoff has been campaigning nonstop to succeed his friend Cardin. His method is simple: He tells everyone he has the votes.
The theory is equally simple: Other delegates know Weisengoff is a good nose-counter; politics being what it is, politicians don't like to be associated with losers.
But Weisengoff may have a more difficult time than he is letting on. In the first place, at least a third of the House probably won't be returning because of retirements, higher ambition and the usual election-year attrition.
And there is a serious "anybody but Weisengoff" movement afoot. The movement, says one sympathetic House member, "has a majority -- all it lacks is a candidate."
A number of other people would like to be speaker, but only one appears to have the capability now of rounding up enough votes. That is Del. R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., a Kent County native who heads the Appropriations Committee. Though Mitchell is the logical choice, all signs point to him becoming Schaefer's candidate for lieutenant governor.
Sachs' choice of Rep. Parren Mitchell to be his running mate apparently has caused some reexamination in the Schaefer camp of Clay Mitchell, on the grounds that the mayor should choose someone more liberal than the Eastern Shore native as a counterbalance to the Parren Mitchell.
There has even been some talk of Baltimore County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson being considered by Schaefer. However, that may be emanating from Hutchinson himself, whose candidacy for the U.S. Senate has barely gotten off the ground.
If the mayor does choose Clay Mitchell, look for a major pow-wow among other candidates to select a challenger to Weisengoff. None of the other candidates, including Del. Joseph Owens of Montgomery County, Majority Leader Donald Robertson of Montgomery, Del. John Arnick of Baltimore County and Del. Casper Taylor of Cumberland, has the horses to win in a crowded field.
"A lot of these folks who have a notion of becoming speaker, who control seven votes here and nine voters there, are going to find it in their best interest to form a coalition," said Baltimore County Del. Lawrence LaMotte.
LaMotte's problems with Weisengoff reflect a significant, if not necessarily decisive, feeling among House members. "He is more interested in playing the game than he is in the issues," said LaMotte. "The game is fine but we are playing with peoples' lives . . . and the stakes are too high to play games."
There is also a feeling that with Schaefer leading in the polls and with the Senate under the control of another old-school pol, Melvin A. (Mickey) Steinberg, the House should not also be in the hands of a Baltimore area regular.
"There's a sense," said one Baltimore delegate, "that if it's going to be the mayor upstairs and Mickey across the way that we want someone to whom the integrity and independence of the House is important. That doesn't work in Paul's favor."
Who the likely alternative is probably won't be decided immediately. But Taylor is a possible choice because he has strong support on his own committee, Economic Matters, and among rural delegates.
But Taylor has some baggage, as illustrated by a joking remark by lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who is closely tied to Steinberg. When Taylor's close associations with lobbyist Jay Schwartz were mentioned, Bereano said he and Schwartz could form a "joint venture," with one responsible for the Senate, the other the House.
With no clear contender to challenge Weisengoff, there is an opportunity for a wild-card entry, such as Del. Nancy Kopp of Montgomery. Suppose for a moment that Kopp put together a coalition of women and black delegates to support her for speaker and Del. John Douglass for treasurer, a post elected by the legislature . . . .
With the election next winter, there is still plenty of time left for intrigue.