THERE WAS A TIME -- a long time -- when it could be said that the main ingredients of political success in Maryland politics were beer, crabs and little white envelopes filled with money. But it could also be said after the election of Harry Hughes as governor that the voters were tired of this rap and the history behind it -- and turned to a low-profile, "Mr. Clean" candidate to underscore their rejection of corruption as an accepted tradition. But this week, yet another instance of sticky political fingers served to haunt the state: Walter S. Orlinsky, president of Baltimore's city council, pleaded guilty to an extortion charge.

Mr. Orlinsky admitted accepting kickbacks last year to help a Philadelphia firm get a lucrative sludge-hauling contract with the city. As it was outlined in a "statement of facts" read in court by an assistant U.S. attorney, Mr. Orlinsky was accused of accepting cash payments totaling more than $10,000. But if the pattern had a familiar ring to it -- bringing back less-than-fond memories of the Agnew-Mandel-Anderson-et-al days -- many of Mr. Orlinsky's past supporters as well as opponents seemed reluctant to accept him in this role.

He was, after all, not your basic "establishment" politician. On the contrary, he was the jovial outsider whose wit, knowledge of urban government and imagination made him a popular figure around town and in the press. Still, just as this one case does not in itself signal a full-blown revival of corruption across the state, neither should it be played down or explained away as an unfortunate minor aberration by an affable public servant. It is a bad business, and in being caught in this betrayal of public trust, Mr. Orlinsky joins some bad political company for which sympathy is understandably scarce.