Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, struggling to revive his chances for winning a U.S. Senate seat, which have been severely battered by the state's savings and loan debacle, finally began to counterpunch this week.
In one 20-hour span, the governor, whose standing in the polls has dipped as low as his public profile in recent months, spoke directly to the people on a five-minute television broadcast Thursday night, addressed a joint session of the General Assembly and held his first extensive news conference in three months.
The platforms were varied, but the themes promoted by Hughes were consistent: the end of Maryland's eight-month savings and loan nightmare is in sight, the eventual cost will be minimized, and the chief executive has been firmly, if quietly, overcoming the disaster.
The governor was not the only public figure with a great deal at stake in a week when a comprehensive investigation of the thrift crisis officially apportioned the blame among greedy savings and loan owners, incompetent bureaucrats and senior state officials ill-served by their underlings.
Many of the state's 188 legislators seemed unsure of what the week's events would mean for them as they also prepare to face an electorate that, some of them sense, may be ready to vote against every incumbent.
"It sounds awful good to me," said Del. Joan Pitkin (D-Prince George's) of Hughes' plan to begin paying off depositors at Old Court Savings & Loan this spring. "They're saving the depositors. They're saving the taxpayers. The question is whether it will save all of us."
Added Del. Susan Buswell (D-Howard): "There is such a loss of credibility for all of us. If I were a citizen on the street, whether or not I had money in an institution, I would feel that government has failed."
Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, running for governor this year, was only mildly bloodied by the special counsel's investigation into the savings and loan scandal. But the Sachs campaign was nonetheless wounded by erroneous and widely circulated press speculation prior to the release of the report that he would share major blame for the thrift debacle.
"The price of a free press is the danger of recklessness and I think we had some of that here," said Sachs. "As to the motives of those who were feeding the disinformation and the misinformation, I can only speculate. They certainly weren't friends of mine."
Hughes' bold reemergence was the most obvious sign that the first three days of the 1986 legislative session may have been devoted to savings and loans but were in fact an exercise in political positioning.
Two important, and new, political undercurrents also emerged as paid campaign consultants stepped in to repair the governor's badly bruised public image. For the first time, Hughes personally accepted some measure of responsibility for the crisis, admitting it "happened on my watch." And he subtly, but pointedly, recognized an obvious political calculus by emphasizing the concerns of taxpayers over the plight of depositors with frozen funds.
Concern over the possible political fallout from the S&L crisis was no doubt on the minds of Hughes and his paid political advisers, who are taking an increasingly dominant role in molding the administration's public profile.
Hughes relied almost exclusively on media consultant David Sawyer and his pollster Dick Dressner in determining the strategy for Thursday night's television address, according to one source close to the campaign.
The consultants first suggested that Hughes hold a news conference on Thursday, the same day that Special Counsel Wilbur D. Preston Jr. unveiled his scathing report to the legislature. But it was felt, said the source, that "a press conference would get buried, it wouldn't get much coverage" if it followed Preston's devastating findings on the origins of the savings and loan disaster.
So the governor took to the airwaves to make a highly personal -- and political -- status report on the crisis that was carried live on the regional 6 p.m. newscasts. It was quickly followed today by his speech to the legislature and the news conference.
In response to Hughes' televised address Thursday night, Republican leaders of the House of Delegates and Senate said today they would ask the television stations that carried the speech to grant the opposition party equal time to respond.
"I think the issue should be raised," said Del. Robert R. Neall, minority leader of the House. "There wasn't much news there. The governor was shoring up his own position."
Not everyone is certain Hughes' winter offensive will take hold.
Marvin Hout, a 71-year-old Air Force retiree from Bowie, who has repeatedly urged his legislators to spare taxpayers the cost of a depositor bailout, said yesterday he is not convinced Hughes' four-year payout plan will be as painless as advertised.
"Governments have no money except tax money," said Hout. They're going to take it out of the highway fund -- that's tax money."
Del. Elijah Cummings (D-Baltimore), the chairman of the legislature's Black Caucus, said that "it would take a major miracle for citizens and depositors to conclude that Gov. Hughes was not responsible" for the debacle.
A veteran Democratic analyst said it is "very improbable" that Hughes can recover from a long decline in public approval. Despite broad support on the issues he has promoted, the analyst said, Hughes is increasingly viewed as passive and uninspiring and has no natural political base of support.
"When one develops a negative, particularly when it is a negative on personality or leadership, it is very hard to remove," the source said. "It's very hard for politicians to vindicate themselves in a campaign environment."