THE CANDIDATE, a boyish-looking 30- year-old lawyer named Abbe Lowell, sat across the table from the reporter in the coffee shop of the Madison Hotel downtown and laid his political cards on the table.
"I'm frustrated by the fact that my campaign stems on the issues," he said pointedly. "On a House of Delegates level, issues are very unimportant in the race. More important is name recognition, loyalty to the party, money, and running on the right slate. I can't make this an issues campaign without the press. If the press doesn't make it part of agenda, there's nothing I can do."
"I'm going to be talking about issues," he said, almost pleading now. "If I don't do something to make you cover me, then don't do it. But please tell me -- what can I do to make you cover me?"
To some more traditional politicians and journalists, such a brazen play for press attention would be jumped on immediately as unacceptable headline-hunting. But in Washington's metropolitan jurisdictions this year -- with 453 primary candidates competing for 195 positions on the November ballot in contests for posts from clerk of the court to governor -- such assiduous courting of the press is commonplace, as much a part of modern-day campaigning as shoe-leathering and flesh-pressing.
Local candidates are all scrambling to break out of a crowded pack, and one way is to get two sentences in The Washington Post. Even two sentences can be reproduced quickly in a newsletter -- as Lowell did -- beneath the banner headline: "What did The Washington Post say about Abbe Lowell's campaign for the House of Delegates?"
It didn't help; Lowell lost badly.
Politicians pandering to the reporters who cover them is nothing new. But the yearning for press attention, and an acute consciousness about how they are mentioned, becomes even more intense for low-profile suburban politicians running for low-visibility offices in a region dominated by national politics.
This was the first Montgomery County election year with the suburban Journal newspapers publishing five days a week, so local candidates often found a ready outlet for their words of wisdom. But as one candidate said, "Let's face it, the Journal's circulation is only 40,000."
In suburban politics, the name of the media game is getting a story in The Post, which has a circulation of more than 800,000 and, in Montgomery County, for example, which I cover, reaches nearly every household. Better still is a little time on local television. But TV, with its time limitations, generally concentrates even more on only the biggest political events in the county.
So never mind that there are certain real limitations on what The Post can be expected to do. There are, after all, only so many reporters, and only so many pages that can be printed. The Maryland, Virginia and District Weekly sections of the paper do carry voters' guides with photos and short biographies of all candidates, as well as their responses to specific questions. For that matter, The Washington Post does print an excruciating amount of political news.
It would seem unlikely that the Post's subscribers would read even more reports on all candidates for all positions, even if it were possible to write, edit and print them.
"In the Washington market, let's face it, we're competing for press coverage with the Congress," said Steve Silverman, campaign manager for Luiz R. Simmons, losing GOP candidate for Montgomery County executive. "When people here think about government, they think about Congress. Getting press coverage is a hit-or-miss situation. For instance, you learn to do things on Mondays instead of on weekends. And you always run the risk of being bumped by 'Yesterday, the Senate voted to. . . .' "
"There's only one media market that's more difficult than Washington and that's New York, where it's a zoo in terms of candidates," Silverman said.
"In our county especially, people are more oriented towards the federal government," explained Montgomery County's senior state senator, Margaret Schweinhaut. "Other counties and cities are more oriented to the state level. In Montgomery, more people consider themselves part of metropolitan Washington, not residents of the state of Maryland."
The local politicians here are generally resigned to the low priority their campaigns receive in the nationally oriented Washington media. The more media-sophisticated among them will find ways to compensate. Some will angle for coverage by dropping selective "leaks" to reporters, promising an "exclusive" in return for what is hoped will be good play. Others resort to gimmicks, like dressing in overalls and pumping gasoline on a Saturday morning. Strident attacks on opponents, even when unsubstantiated by facts, usually draw a crowd at press conferences on slow mornings.
One candidate who was particularly masterful at nosing his way into print met me for an off-the-record breakfast at the East-West Highway Hot Shoppe to discuss a new proposal he wanted to unveil. His question: "How can we get the most mileage out of this? Can I just give you all the figures we collected? Or should I call a press conference and announce it?"
After being told that reporters are not in the business of acting as media advisers to politicians, the candidate ended up "leaking" his information to The Post first, hoping for the maximum possible exposure. But the story got held up in the crunch of breaking daily news, so he "leaked" the same information to the Montgomery Journal.
Another candidate, interviewed at his office, was asked to comment on a particularly thorny issue. The candidate asked to go off the record, then scribbled down a response on a yellow legal pad. "How would it be if I said something like this?" he asked, handing me the scribbled two-sentence response. "Do you think both sentences would get in, or would your editors cut it after the first line?"
The candidate wasn't satisfied, so he called in his campaign manager. The campaign manager scanned the two-sentence comment and cut it down to one sentence with a red flare pen. "If you give them two sentences, it usually gets cut," the campaign manager explained to the candidate. So the candidate gave me the one-sentence response, all of which made it into print.
Giving adequate and equal coverage to all candidates is an impossible job in a crowded primary. This year, in order to focus finite resources on the coverage of candidates most likely to end up affecting readers' lives, The Washington Post early on dismissed as losers most non-serious candidates running in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Reporters and editors sat down over breakfast at Twigs restaurant downtown, with the final list of all the hopefuls. The process is quick and cruel, though not what you'd call arbitrary. To be considered "serious" -- to be thought of as having a reasonable chance to win -- candidates must first demonstrate that they have a lot of money, or some assemblage of an organization, or an impressive list of endorsements, or a well-known name.
But relying on those barometers can often lead to misimpressions, particularly when the candidates catch on to what makes them "serious" in the eyes of the press. Abbe Lowell caught on. He held an impressive Washington fund-raiser and invited some of his old friends from the Carter administration where he once worked. When Lowell got his two sentences in a Post story wrapping up the state legislative races, and then used those two sentences in his mass mailing, Hilbert Genn, Lowell's chief opponent, dashed off an angry letter to me.
"I frankly felt that the reporting was and has been unbalanced by giving eight lines to this candidate to one addressed to my issues, in effect providing a lot of space to a high- spending campaign with 'connections,' " he wrote. "Unf'sortunately, when the media provide a lot of space to such a candidate (and) underscore his connections . . . the public generally is not given a full, balanced or fair opportunity to make an informed judgment."
The public did make its judgment on Sept. 14. Genn won the seat easily over Lowell, despite having received only one line of press to Lowell's eight.
Another candidate who caught on to what the press thinks is "serious" was Joseph McGrath, a vice president of American Security Bank making his first run for political office; he wanted the GOP nomination for county executive. McGrath, during a breakfast interview in Bethesda, was cocky and self-assured when he told me he would raise $50,000 by the end of June and $100,000 for the primary.
The media took Joe McGrath seriously. A banker, after all, could be presumed to have some access to such whopping sums. But when the first candidate finance reports were filed in mid-August, McGrath had raised only $37,000 -- and $15,000 of that was his own money, loaned to the campaign. But it didn't matter. By then, Joe McGrath had already become a "serious" candidate.
Some candidates, mostly ones who are eliminated early from the list of "serious" contenders, think the elimination process is unfair. Most recite the familiar refrain: "If the press covers me like a serious candidate, then my candidacy will become serious."
That was the frustration voiced by Wade Dunn, a businessman and political unknown running for Montgomery County executive in the Democratic primary. Sitting at the very same table in the Madison Hotel where Abbe Lowell made his plea, Dunn launched into his own complaint. "I have yet to run into one person who doesn't think I'm capable," Dunn lamented. "I have only one problem, and that's name recognition, and that means money. There's no question that the press is critical. I've been fighting uphill for six months. I'm running on the issues, and it ain't working. The press can't make you, but they certainly can kill you."
Dunn proved a quick study after that late- June lunch. He learned well the art of courting the press. His Monday morning press conferences where he would level a new allegation against the incumbent became almost routine.
On the day before the Sept. 14 primary, Dunn, certain to lose but wiser in the ways of campaigning said: "What you're up against is that The Washington Post is oriented towards the national and international level. To get excited about Montgomery County is a tough chore. The attitude of many Montgomery County residents is the same and that (attitude) could be formed in part by the press coverage. It's a Catch-22.
"One thing that's been disappointing to me as a local candidate," Dunn added, "has been the enormous attention being focused on the (Mayor Marion) Barry race in Washington, D.C. We feel like we're playing second fiddle out here."
Some politicians complained that in the mad scramble for media attention, the razzle- dazzle candidates most often get coverage at the expense of the more grey-flannel candidates. "People can become skillful at manipulating words and appearances," said Montgomery council member Scott Fosler. "What journalists write about are events. A bill being introduced is an event. Contrast that to setting up an agenda for improving the management of county government, which is a lot of memos back and forth. It's much more nebulous, so it's not a story."
Perhaps most difficult for local candidates to accept is that the coverage they receive, with all the faults and foibles, is not part of a conspiracy. It is easier to accept the idea that there is a specific, predetermined election coverage master plan working against them than to concede that the institution they see as all-powerful only sees them as relatively insignificant in the overall scheme of daily news. (With Israeli tanks rolling into West Beirut and Congress grappling with a multibillion-dollar tax bill, a fight for seven Montgomery County council 'sseats seems small by comparison.)
In the District of Columbia, many blacks subscribe to the conspiracy theory of a white- dominated media pointing up the foibles of a black government as a plot to facilitate a return to the pre-home-rule days of white control. The cry from the District Building is often that the Washington media gives closer and more critical scrutiny to Marion Barry than to Montgomery Council Executive Charles Gilchrist or Prince George's County Executive Larry Hogan.
In well educated and supposedly sophisticated Montgomery County, politicians hold their own "conspiracy theories" that are only slightly less ridiculous. The media's most current conspiracy usually depends upon which politician is asked, and how they were covered in that day's article. (Some reporters have come to feel that a good rule of thumb is when both sides think they were treated unfairly, the story was probably close to the mark.)
The politicians carefully look for any turn of phrase, any nuance of wording, that betrays the pattern of the "conspiracy" as they see it. They meticulously count up the number of lines in print devoted to charges, versus the number of lines devoted to rebuttal. The most popular "conspiracy theory" in Montgomery political circles is that the Post news pages are decidely pro-Gilchrist, and that Post editors spike stories about damaging allegations against Gilchrist -- particularly about his role in a local scandal dubbed "Liquorgate."
The conspiracy theories among suburban politicians, like those among skeptics in the District of Columbia, reveal a lack of understanding about the press, which is generally more disorganized than any conspiracy would allow. But for suburban politicians, "conspiracy theories" serve a particular purpose -- they allow the locals to attach to themselves an importance which, in the eyes of the nationally oriented media, quite frankly isn't there. Better to blame their problems with the press on the omnipresent media conspiracy than on a press that is easily distracted, sometimes random, lured away by big events, and which seems to attach more importance to national, rather than local, concerns.