"I fell in love with the courtroom," says Stephen Sachs. "I'd never tried trial work, even in law school. I was good at it. I loved it -- advocacy, the combat, the contest." There was little in Stephen Sachs' first 30 years that pointed to his zest for combat as a prosecutor and politician. He was brought up in Forest Park, then a Jewish neighborhood in northwest Baltimore. His father originally taught constitutional law at Johns Hopkins, and from 1940 to 1975 he was director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. He worked to curb anti-Semitism and job discrimination at a time when most neighborhoods were "restricted." He was a community organizer, but also "an absorber of the scholarship of others," says his son: Holmes and Brandeis, Frankfurter and Cardozo "were names at our dinner table." He was "born a New Dealer" and solidly backed Franklin Roosevelt's court packing plan; he "had a skeptical frame of mind, loved to puncture balloons." At 78, he still does.

His father was active in community affairs, but not politics. "He never would have stood for public office," Sachs says, "because compromise is involved. He would have condemned it, and does." Nor was the environment Stephen Sachs found in Quaker schools -- Friends high school in Baltimore and Haverford College -- conventionally political. Haverford takes its Quakerism seriously, and Sachs took and takes Haverford seriously: he was president of the student council in the 1950s, is on the board, and both his children are students there now. Haverford was "introspective; the only outside issue was the Army-McCarthy hearings, and I rooted for the Army." Some of his Quaker friends would not register for the draft. "I was never able to agree with the distinctions that were drawn," he says -- adding, "you're talking to the prosecutor of the Catonsville 9."

From Haverford Sachs took the path of the honors graduate: a year at Oxford, writing on the Labour Party's response to the Spanish Civil War; two years in the Army, spent mostly in Orleans, France, writing for the base newspaper; Yale Law School from 1957 to 1960, majoring in labor law and teaching constitutional law to undergraduate football players; law clerk for Judge Henry Edgerton of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Then in 1961, a choice that has determined his career since. Should he stay in JFK's Washington and practice labor law with the firm representing the Steelworkers? Or should he work in Baltimore with the new U.S. attorney, Joseph Tydings? He chose Tydings. There were only half a dozen lawyers in the office, but they prosecuted some of Maryland's leading politicians and ended up in high posts -- not only Sachs but also Tydings, elected senator in 1964, and Benjamin Civiletti, who was U.S. attorney general in the Carter administration.

Among the politicians they convicted were Rep. Thomas Johnson and Maryland Speaker A. Gordon Boone, two Democrats implicated in early savings and loan scandals. "There comes the sense of waking up every morning and you're doing the public's business, you're on the right side of the issue, you have more or less the luxury of deciding the causes to pursue." He left in 1964 to work at Tydings' law firm and on his campaign; he went back in a U.S. attorney himself in 1967, and served for 18 months into the Nixon years with the backing of Sen. Charles Mathias; he prosecuted Sen. Daniel Brewster, Tydings' Democratic colleague whom Mathias had defeated; that led to the investigation of Texas Rep. John Dowdy, whom he came back to prosecute; he also recommended the indictment of Sen. Russell Long in connection with a contract on the Rayburn Building Parking Garage, but the Justice Department forbade him to sign the grand jury's presentment.

Back in private practice after 1970, Sachs defended some well-known defendants, including L. Patrick Gray of Watergate fame ("he was absolutely vindicated"). He believes in the adversary system, and finds it "very moving: the engines of the state are arrayed against you, and you see the defendant as a human being. The shield function is an honorable one."

But his real zest is to root out the corruption and rottenness he sees as too often embedded in the political process. He nearly ran for attorney general in 1974, and ran and won in 1978 and 1982; he believes he has upgraded and activated the office. The governor's race flows naturally, he says. He knows the state and state government, and "I represent the reform tradition. All of my roots, and the driving force of my campaign for attorney general, much of the support I receive today, come from people outside the governmental establishment, marked by independence and a rigorous insistence on integrity in government." He says of Donald Schaefer that he "is impeccably honest personally -- I mean that. But the mayor is insensitive to the lack of integrity in others, symbolized by his tolerance and embrace of Marvin Mandel and Irv Kovens." And he faults him for being "enamored of privatization," getting private committees to do the public's business.

Sachs is still eager to assure you that "I'm a good pol; I can work a room as well as anyone, and I enjoy it." He is gregarious, humorous, self-deprecating occasionally. He trails in the polls and knows he faces daunting odds. But he will be in the public eye this summer in his characteristic role, in charge of prosecuting accused wrongdoers in the latest savings and loan scandal, and he will be running, combatively, against a talented opponent who in his view stands for wrong things in public life.