The sweltering afternoon that Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele spent strolling the streets of La Plata last week, sipping lemonade in the office of a title attorney, shaking hands in the hospital cafeteria, offering advice to town officials, was not part of an as-yet-unannounced campaign for U.S. Senate.
It was, he said, just part of his job.
On the surface, few jobs in Maryland appear better suited to be a springboard to higher office than that of lieutenant governor. It bestows upon its incumbent widespread name recognition, the freedom to travel the state, a generous budget and on-the-job training.
And yet, in the 35 years since the position was created by constitutional amendment, no lieutenant governor has been elected to the governor's office or won a seat in either chamber of Congress.
Of the six who have held the title, only one has succeeded in ever again winning a statewide race -- and in that case, J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D) set aside his gubernatorial ambitions to seek the job of attorney general.
Maryland's lieutenant governorship, said Allan J. Lichtman, a historian who closely follows the state's politics, has become the "broken diving board" of electoral hopefuls.
Consider the Chicago Cubs. Or (until last year) the Bambino's grip on the Boston Red Sox. Only this curse isn't in the batter's box -- it's at the ballot box.
The job has served as a "deep freeze" for budding candidates, said Lichtman, an American University professor who, it must be disclosed, is considering a U.S. Senate bid himself. When the candidates emerge, the results have been pretty dismal.
Consider Samuel W. Bogley (D), who from 1979 to 1982 sputtered through four years as Gov. Harry R. Hughes's second in command.
Bogley had been a Prince George's County Council member when his sway with voters in the Washington region helped him become Hughes's running mate.
But it wasn't long before that marriage of convenience lost its gloss. There was his antiabortion activism, which alienated his boss; his regular statements about possibly switching political parties; and his humiliation when Hughes, upon leaving the state, failed, except once, to name him acting governor.
Hughes dumped him, and when the governor won a second term, Bogley wasn't even invited to the inauguration. Higher office was forever out of reach. "You can sure be forgotten in a hurry," Bogley said.
Other former lieutenants have their own sad stories. Blair Lee III, a state senator from Montgomery County, had high hopes of winning the governor's office after temping in the top job when Gov. Marvin Mandel was convicted of federal mail fraud charges in 1977. But proximity to the scandal -- one he played no part in -- was enough to cost him at the polls and end his political career.
During Melvin A. Steinberg's tenure under the notoriously prickly Gov. William Donald Schaefer, an ugly public falling-out left Steinberg stripped of virtually all his responsibilities.
When Steinberg set out to run on his own, his former boss backed someone else. "I lost the pro-Schaefer voters and the anti-Schaefer people," Steinberg said. "It was no-win."
A small collection of La Plata's leaders gathered under a nylon tent last week, eagerly awaiting the lieutenant governor's arrival.
Steele pulled up in his black Chevrolet Suburban, and state troopers stood watch as he stepped to the podium. Three years after a tornado ripped up Lagrange Avenue, Steele had arrived to celebrate the fortitude of a town and its leaders. After brief remarks, he took jumbo scissors in hand and cut the ribbon on a streetscape newly constructed -- in part, he reminded, with a $1 million infusion of state aid.
"Everyone enlisted the resources of their offices to make sure that La Plata would not only survive, but that La Plata would be revived from the destruction," he said.
The event, one of hundreds Steele has presided over during his first three years in office, underscored what may be the most perplexing paradox of his position: Why has a position best described as goodwill ambassador failed to launch successful campaigns for statewide office?
It has in many states.
The job groomed two of last year's leading Democratic presidential candidates: Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and former Vermont governor Howard Dean. It helped launch several current governors, including those of Louisiana, Utah, Indiana, Arkansas and Delaware. In Virginia, where the governor is not allowed to serve consecutive terms, the lieutenant's post is considered an ideal steppingstone. This year, Timothy M. Kaine (D) is trying to become the fifth of the state's past 10 elected lieutenant governors to win the governor's race.
But Maryland's position differs from most of those states' in an important way: It lacks clout. Maryland is among only 12 states in which gubernatorial candidates pick their running mates and the two appear on the ballot as a ticket, according to the National Lieutenant Governors Association.
In 18 states, governors and lieutenant governors run separately, creating the possibility that candidates from opposing parties can prevail. Running separately typically requires candidates to develop their own agenda and can better position them for bids at higher office.
Many states also give their lieutenant governors far more to do. The Maryland Constitution assigns the lieutenant governor "the duties delegated to him by the governor" -- but provides no further guidance.
In Indiana, by contrast, the second in command oversees commerce, tourism, agriculture and homeland security. And she presides over the state Senate. In fact, unlike Steele, about half of lieutenant governors have some legislative function, including breaking ties in the state Senate.
Julia Hurst, director of the National Lieutenant Governors Association, said there has been a definite trend in recent years to expand the portfolios with such duties as homeland security or budget planning. Thicker portfolios bring greater visibility, which could account for the unusually large crop of lieutenant governors stepping up to run for higher office next year, she said.
If there is a curse on Maryland's No. 2, it traces to the Civil War and the unhappy tenure of Christopher Cox. A distinguished physician, he won the newly minted office in 1864 when abolitionists ruled in Maryland.
But three years later, Southern sympathizers seized political control and rewrote the Constitution, eliminating Cox's job. The position was not amended back into the Constitution until a century later, when Gov. Spiro T. Agnew (R) was tapped to be vice president and lawmakers recognized the need for a clear successor.
Blair Lee IV, a developer and Democratic commentator who ran his father's campaign in 1980, said that if there's a curse, it's not rooted in history. It's rooted in the personalities of those who take the job.
"Most people who run for lieutenant are by definition people who are happy playing second fiddle and being Number 2 guys," said Lee, including his father in that group.
He pointed also to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who he believes was less excited about running for higher office than many of the people around her.
Townsend, who lost a 2002 bid for governor, did not return a message left at her home.
The big question for Steele, Lee said, "is if he is one of these more retiring personalities, can he find the fire to go out there and be the alpha male?"
Steele's aides would not make him available to comment on the curse. But politics being what it is, it wasn't hard to find Maryland Democrats who hope it will persist.
"Or at least," clarified Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore) with a smile, "that any curse that might be attached to that job isn't broken by Michael Steele."