It is said in this political town that if God wanted to get the Ten Commandments through the Maryland General Assembly, he would first have to take his case to a Baltimore pol named Paul Weisengoff.
Weisengoff would learn reverently to God's spiel, then take a long, pregnant puff on his cigar, and ask, as he blew the smelly smoke in God's face: "Okay, God, how bad do you want these?"
The reputation that inspired this blasphemous legend belongs to a disarmingly sweet-faced delegate whose name appears nowhere on the roster of General Assembly floor leaders or committee chairmen. Weisengoff, 49, a monastery dropout turned South Baltimore machine Democrat, has no title and no official power base. He simply has something that every legislator needs -- votes.
In 15 years as a delegate, he has brokered the deciding votes for enough bills to fill a fat volume of the Maryland code. Legend has it that he traded a battered spouse program for Baltimore's $45 million convention center; D.C. voting rights for the death of a public campaign financing bill; a maze of obscure local measures for state aid to Memorial Stadium.
The trade-offs attributed to him stretch far beyond anything that one legislator could have pulled off. Asked to tell where his real power ends and the illusion of his power begins, he will only puff on his cigar and smile, his blue eyes twinkling and radiating intrigue. After all, he acknowledges, it is precisely that fluidity between the myth and the man that gives him his clout.
"I watch his eyes," said one of his Baltimore compatriots and unfailing devotees, Del. Anthony M. DiPietro Jr. "I've seen him walk up and down the aisle of the House and just look up in the air, and the bill will pass. And I've seen him look at the floor, and the bill will die."
That, Weisengoff declares, is preposterous. As for the rest of the puzzle, he's not telling.
There is probably someone like Weisengoff in most state legislatures -- the consummate gamesman who so intimately understands the dynamics of the 141-member House of Delegates that he can scan a vote tally with the speed of a computer, pick out the soft voices, and figure out how to turn them around through the intricate trading of favors. The issue is secondary; the game comes first.
"There are two ways to pass a bill," he explains, as if instructing a high school civics class."You can pass it on the merits, or you can get 71 votes."
Such unmasked brokering is not really in style here these days. In the aftermath of the scandal that toppled the state's ultimate power broker -- the now-imprisoned former governor Marvin Mandel -- most New Era Maryland politicians labor to appear cleaner than they really are. But the presence of Weisengoff, who alone strives to appear sleazier then he really is, poses the problem of Eve and the apple -- temptation in the Garden.
Take the case of Del. Jennie M. Forehand, a civic-minded newcomer from that citadel of open government, Montgomery County -- the spic-and-span sort who never dreamed of dirtying her hands in a trade. Then along came Weisengoff last year to solicit her vote against a Republican push to slap spending limits on the Democratic administration.
"With most people, I listen and I decide on the merits. But with him standing there, with his cigar and all the goodies I know he can bestow, all I could think was: What could I swap my vote for?" Forehand say, blushing, "I remember going to David Scull [the Montgomery delegation chairman] and asking, 'David, what do we need?"
A Prince George's delegate who has traded a few votes with Weisergoff speaks with a little more experience: "When I deal with Paul, I always count my change."
Weisengoff on Mandel: "He was the finest governor in my lifetime. He was a true leader."
What makes a leader?
"Somebody who wins."
On gentle, soft-spoken Senate President James Clark: "Jim Clark, now there's an abuse of power."
An abuse of power?
"Yes, he has power and he doesn't use it."
On loyalty: "Never give your word unless you plan to keep it. When you're bought, stay bought."
Who is this man?
He is, to say the least, a patchwork of contradictions. His name sounds Jewish, but he is a Roman Catholic. He acts like a street tough, but he holds a master's degree in biology. He brags that his district is farther South than Alabama on the race issue, yet his master's degree comes from Morgan State, Maryland's largest black university, which gained university status with some legislative help from Weisengoff.
He is the proud product of his South Baltimore district, a jampacked strip of blue-collar communities, each with its tavern and VFW post, stretching across the city's underbelly. The youngest of nine children born to Lithuanian immigrants, he grew up in an apartment over his father's small grocery store and played football in H. L. Mencken's yard. ("I thought he was a sonofabitch; he always chased us away.")
He attended Catholic schools and spent a year in Pennsylvania studying to be a Benedictine monk, but got homesick and came back to South Baltimore, where he called bingo games, drove trucks, worked for carnivals and finally started teaching biology at Southern High School. He has been there, or elsewhere in the Baltimore City school system, ever since.
Not long after he started teaching school, he met a man named Harry McGurik, who was putting together what would become one of the most awesome political organizations in the state, there in Weisengoff's South Baltimore district. In 1966, McGuirk and Weisengoff ran together on a ticket, and both won -- McGuirk in the Senate and Weisengoff in the House. tThe rest is more or less history.
In McGuirk, Weisengoff found his mentor, a political craftsman in Annapolis, a ward heeler back home. McGuirk drew power largely from his ties in the winners -- the team behind Mandel Weisengoff immediately jumped into the same ranks.
While cultivating his political ties to Mandel, Weisengoff attached himself also to a much younger, rising Baltimore legislator -- Benjamin L. Cardin, who was elected along with him in 1966. A curious chemistry developed between the youthful intellectual from liberal, northwest Baltimore -- Mandel's home turf -- and the wheeler-dealer from the south side. Cardin took the high road, spending his time shaping policy and cultivating his image as a stateman. Meanwhile, Weisengoff stalked the statehouse corridors and lounges for the support needed to push Cardin's and others' programs into law.
The relationship deepened during their very different rises -- Cardin's, to speaker of the House in 1979; Weisengoff, to leadership of the formidiable Baltimore delegation, a title he ceded in 1979 to go back underground -- to "free lance," as he puts it. Cardin has offered him positions in the leadership, but he has turned them all down.
Today, each calls the other his closest friend in the House. It is said that Weisengoff is the darker side of Cardin, a sort of majority leader without porfolio who roams the aisles to see where the votes are -- to shake them out for Cardin, if necessary. On any major vote, he can be seen easing up to the rostrum after making a circuit of the House floor, whispering his findings in Cardin's ear. It is said that he would do almost anything Cardin asks.
Their relationship gives Weisengoff much of his power. At the start of every session, it is Weisengoff -- not the real majority leader, Del. Donald Robertson (D-Montgomery) -- who nominates Cardin for speaker.
"The problem is: You never know whose bidding Paul is doing," complains one delegate. "The other day, he came up to me in the lounge and said: 'Hey, what would you say about Cardin for governor?' I froze. Was he kidding? Was he serious? Was he feeling me out for Cardin? Was he just curious on his own? I didn't know who I was talking to, or who I was supposed to be answering. I just sat there."
The best way to understand Weisengoff, his colleagues say, is to follow him around for a day. It begins in his small office, at the end of a corridor on the third floor of the House office building. There he sits in a cloud of cigar smoke, a picture of Mandel hanging on the wall behind him; on the desk before him lies the book, "Go Quietly -- or Else," the autobiography of Mandel's infamous predecessor, Spiro T. Agnew.
He is the first person to arrive in the 37th District office, and will be the last one to go home. He wears a brown double-knit suit, and his brown hair is slicked back except for one defiant curl. His dark tie is clasped with a small, enamel pin in the shape of a pipe -- the Mandel trademark. He wears it today, he explains, in honor of a hearing on a controversial horseracing bill, since racing is the issue that spawned the Mandel affair.
Racing, the most politically tainted issue in the state, is not surprisingly his pet project. He spend hours each day talking to track managers, horsebreeders, jockeys and stable boys, track owners and racing commissioners. He took up the issue initially out of friendship for Ben Schwartz, chairman of the state harness horseracing board. The two grew close in 1978, when Weisengoff suffered a heart ailment and started vacationing with his wife, Lorraine, in a mobile home near Schwartz's trailer outside Ocean City.
This day, the hearing concerns a controversial $6 million racing consolidation plan being touted as a reform measure by Gov. Harry Hughes, a post-Mandel politician for whom Weisengoff does not mask his scorn. (Weisengoff privately calls it the "Hughes-Mandel reform plan," since it resembles one Mandel once pushed.)
Track owners and special interest lobbyists flock into the hearing room, and head straight for Weisengoff, who stands propped against the witness stand, waiting, like a priest in a makeshift confessional, to hear their whispered concerns. Few of them bother to talk to the committee chairmen, who sit ceremoniously on the rostrum.
Later, at the statehouse, he strolls through the main hallway, lobbyists hanging onto him like iron filing on a magnet.
First, the scrap-metal industry lobbyist, worrying about a special interest bill. ("Go see Harry [McGuirk]. It's in the Senate," Weisengoff whispers.)
Then, the lobbyist for the conservationist bottle bill approaches. ("I know you're not on our side, but it's very complex bill, and I think you'd like to hear what we have to say," she says. "Great," he answers. "I love complex bills, they're easier to kill.")
Then the optometrists' lobbyist moves in, stuffing a fact sheet into Weisengoff's hands. ("Is Paul into optometry?" someone asks. "Hell, he's into everything," the lobbyist answers.)
The scene in the hallway perhaps best illustrates the Weisengoff craft: He dabbles in hundreds of issues that matter to only a few delegates, issues that still need 71 votes. He has figured out the institutional personality of the House. The big bills -- ethics legislation, spending limits and prisons -- don't matter. It's the little bills -- the one that create parks in the suburbs, senior citizens programs in the counties, wetlands programs on the Eastern Shore -- that make a legislator's reputation back home. A 33-vote bloc of support, delivered courtesy of Weisengoff from the baltimore delegation, never hurts such causes. And sponsors of the causes do not soon forget the help.
Weisengoff's mentor, McGuirk, sees his protege this way: "Many people like to do favors for others. And many like to take favors. But to be able to do both the way that Paul does -- that is a gift."
But even this most opportunistic of politicians claims to have a few issues that are not up for grabs. They are what he possesses of an ideology, and they are too important to cheapen in a trade, he says, in a rare moment of seriousness at the end of the day. For example, he says, he is for the death penalty, prayer in the schools, organized labor, Ben Cardin and the city of Baltimore. He is steadfastly opposed to Medicaid funding for abortions, public financing of political campaigns and anything touted as "reform llegislation."
"Hell," he says, half-apologizing for is few intractable stances. "Sometimes you just have to be responsible."
It is said that Weisengoff is no longer wht he used to be. But it is unclear whether the illusion, or the man, is fading.
Much was made of a legislative loss he suffered last week. Baltimore leaders had dispatched him to lobby the Appropriations Committee to restore a $2.5 million harbor fire protection program gutted by a budget cut. He tried several time-honored techniques. He told some doubters that theirs wouild be the only "nay" votes if they did not vote to restore the program. Two others say he told them they would never get another bill out of his committee. But nobody budged. (Two days later, the city did get the program restored, but only after Cardin and other members of the leadership had interceded.)
"I think people are really getting irritated with his style, with the threats, with the intimidation, with the bluff," huffed one Appropriations committee member, who refused to be named. "And furthermore, I don't think he works as hard as a lot of us who get less credit down here."
Those who know keisengoff say that the setback hurt him. It was, in a way, like being told he wasn't needed."Losing wasn't so bad in itself," he said. "It was the people who didn't respond that hurt so much. . . .
"You know, I think my whole image is funny," he said wistfully. "We're really such insignificant people. We try to make ourselves seem so important. Now this doesn't sound like me, does it? But this state wouldn't change a bit if any one of us disappeared. Sometimes I think it's good to lose. Otherwise, you become arrogant."