For more than a week, Prince George's County state Sen. Decatur W. Trotter was said to be considering a unique, if implausible, solution to a delicate political problem.
Ever since Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stephen H. Sachs selected a popular black congressman to be his running mate, Trotter, a ranking black member of the county's dominant political organization, has been faced with a difficult dilemma: turning his back on either the organization, which favors Sachs' opponent William Donald Schaefer, or U.S. Rep. Parren J. Mitchell.
The rumored solution: Endorse Mitchell, but not Sachs.
"That's ridiculous," responded Trotter when asked about the rumor last week.
But in comparison to the way politics is usually practiced in Prince George's, these are ridiculous times. Ridiculous enough to take seriously the notion that Trotter would endorse one half of a gubernatorial ticket that can be voted on only as a whole.
The choice Trotter faces is only the most vivid example of the political acrobatics under way this year in Prince George's County, where numerous officeholders and candidates are finding out that the time-honored ways of running for office no longer automatically apply.
"In earlier years there were a few individuals who'd sit around, make the decisions, and everybody pretty much would get in line," notes County Executive Parris N. Glendening. "The day when you could say, 'Hey, you're for this candidate or you're off the ticket,' that just makes no sense at all. You can't do that anymore."
This year, with strong statewide candidates splitting up traditional allegiances among county politicians and with an increasingly savvy and independent black electorate, there is no longer just one line to join.
The focus of all this election year angst is the "ticket," an innocuous looking brochure distributed to most registered Democrats that has been, in years past, the key to electoral success for candidates for local office. More often than not, that ticket has contained the names of all candidates -- from sheriff to governor and U.S. Senate -- who are recommended by the dominant Democratic organization led by U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer and state Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.
But this year, "There are going to be lots of pieces of paper floating around with lots of combinations," predicted Del. Albert R. Wynn, whose own campaign for the state Senate seat in the 25th District -- launched against the wishes of the organization -- reflects the newly independent nature of county politics.
Sachs' selection of Mitchell as his lieutenant governor running mate, which brings to his campaign the presence and stature of the state's premier black politician, has helped loosen the organization's hold over county politics.
"It's a rather difficult decision for me," said Trotter, who has been anxious to establish his bona fides among black constituents ever since he was selected to fill a Senate vacancy by a white majority of the central committee that overrode black members who favored another candidate.
"Parren is without a doubt the dean of black politicians in the state," added Trotter. "Before Parren, it appeared Schaefer was ahead in the polls in our district, but with the addition of the congressman it does put together a different scenario."
Similar crosscurrents abound in other districts as well, prompting the formation of so-called "topless tickets" in which local officials band together in support of each other but do not endorse any candidate for governor or U.S. senator.
In the 21st District, for instance, the three incumbent legislators running for reelection, Sen. Arthur Dorman and Dels. Timothy F. Maloney and Pauline H. Menes, will run together on a ticket that contains no gubernatorial candidate.
Dorman, whose support for Schaefer runs counter to his two delegates' preference for Sachs, explained it this way: "We said all three of us are going to run and be successful, so why create a war?"
Complicating the picture, from the organization's point of view, is the strong challenge to incumbent State's Attorney Arthur (Bud) Marshall by Alex Williams, a former Howard University law professor who hopes to become the first black ever elected countywide in Prince George's.
Organization leaders, anxious to avoid a divisive battle with racial overtones, have tried over the past few months to persuade one or the other candidate to drop out. But the latest effort, to entice Marshall with an offer to run unopposed for a judgeship, collapsed last week.
A meeting last week between Glendening and the county's seven state senators, called in part to resolve the problem, produced only one agreement: Everybody in the room would support each other.
Sachs supporters believe the lack of unity this year in Prince George's favors their candidate. Schaefer partisans downplay the significance of the divisions, maintaining that the mayor enjoys the support of a majority of elected officials. Topless tickets are "nothing new," said Dorman.
Nevertheless, some Sachs partisans are so enamored of the turmoil that they are considering running for the largely ceremonial Democratic Central Committee as another means of loosening the organization's grip on county politics.
And the leader of the organization, Hoyer, is widely believed to be leaning toward neutrality in the governor's race.
Asked about that recently, Hoyer demurred, saying, "We love everybody, of course."