As Maryland's savings and loan crisis heated up late last week, a Baltimore-area state senator offered his instant analysis of the likely political repercussions on two key players who are both candidates for the next governor's race.
"This has knocked House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin out of the race and made Attorney General Steve Sachs the next governor," said the senator, who requested anonymity. "Sachs can just lay back, do his job and send people to jail. This is a people's cause."
It was Sachs' announcement of a criminal investigation at Old Court Savings and Loan, a Baltimore institution, coupled with reports of new management there, that contributed to depositors' lining up outside the Old Court offices May 9. Jerome Cardin, a first cousin of the speaker's who has raised money for him, was prominently mentioned in most reports as a minority stockholder in Old Court.
The lines of customers then spread to other savings and loans around the state, and the ensuing events could affect the political fortunes of several public figures who expect to face the voters in 1986.
* Some think Hughes' ambitions to become a U.S. senator will be helped by his adroit handling of the crisis since he took charge a week ago. Others say Hughes will be hurt by the anger of consumers inconvenienced by Hughes' imposition of $1,000 withdrawal limits on each account and by the fact that he left for an overseas trip knowing that Old Court was in serious trouble and that his own regulators had let the situation fester.
* Some say Sachs will be blamed for accelerating the run on Old Court. Baltimore Mayor William D. Schaefer, a probable opponent of Sachs' for the gubernatorial nomination, lost no time last week in criticizing Sachs during a visit to Howard County for announcing his investigation to the public. Or, Sachs could emerge as the hero who sent the bad guys to prison.
"It's too soon to tell," said House Minority Leader Robert R. Neall (R-Anne Arundel) when asked to assess the political fallout. "In the short-term, Hughes and Sachs look okay, but they face risks in the long run. For Hughes, the risks are when he is asked to explain what did he know and when. For Sachs, the risks are in how the prosecutions go. For Ben Cardin , it's a little harder to gauge. The way he handled himself was exemplary, but the downside is having one of the principals with the same surname."
Of all the actors in the savings and loan drama, Cardin is perceived as the major victim, a casualty of events over which he had little control.
Enormously respected as a skilled legislator and student of state government, Cardin's association with Old Court, no matter how peripheral and accidental, has hobbled him at the worst possible time. Less well known than either Sachs or Schaefer, Cardin expected to spend this spring and summer improving his name recognition and convincing political insiders around the state that he is not only well qualified to be governor, but ultimately electable as well.
Cardin said he "really can't assess" the impact of having his name linked to the savings and loan crisis because of his cousin. "There obviously is a name association. But people who know Ben Cardin know Ben Cardin has never been associated with savings and loans and has never had any conflict at all."
Sachs and Hughes have not escaped unscathed in the initial stages of the crisis, either.
Sachs, a former federal prosecutor who is loathed in some sections of the business community as an over-zealous cop, "shot himself in the foot by leaping in and announcing" that his office would conduct an investigation of possible criminal wrongdoing at Old Court, said one Baltimore business figure. "It's probably appropriate that he is investigating, but the perception was that he added to the panic."
On the other hand, said Democratic National Committeeman Lanny J. Davis, a Sachs supporter, "the people who will claim he is hotdogging it are either supporting someone else for governor or are principals in the bank he is investigating. Who else is going to complain?"
Sachs has the advantage of longevity in the savings and loan story. As the scene shifts from the legislative arena to the courts, Sachs will be able to ride the issue well into the 1986 election season.
Asked to gauge the political impact of all this, Sachs demurred, saying only, "If you do the job well, people will think well of you. If you stumble, people will think ill of you. That's the way politics works. Others will have to assess it. It's trite but true, but the best politics is doing a good job."
For Hughes, nearing a decision on whether to run for U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr's seat, the savings and loan crisis has presented an opportunity to appear decisive and in command as a national audience watched. He has received almost universally high marks.
"I think Harry Hughes has acted forcefully, strongly and prudently," said Sachs.
But Hughes could also be held accountable for the state government's failure to uncover earlier and curb the abuses alleged at Old Court. "Harry has been poorly served by his regulators in the Savings and Loan Division," said Sachs. "The regulators see their mission as more protectors of the industry than its policemen."
The legislature is fuming about the state executive branch's failure to regulate adequately the savings and loan industry, and some members who heard testimony last session that the state's S&Ls were in good shape -- are uncharacteristically demanding that Hughes ask for additional funds to beef up the savings and loan division