Vol. 10, No. 27

July 4-10, 2002

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Don’t Be Fooled: In Politics, Mates Aren’t For Life

The Republican gubernatorial candidate, Rep. Robert Ehrlich, gets a ‘B’ for bold with his choice of Michael Steele, an African American, as his lieutenant governor running mate.

Similarly, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend gets a ‘C’ for cunning for selecting retired Admiral Charles Larson as her running mate in the November election.

Each pick is as brilliant as it is transparent: In the case of Ehrlich, what better way to bolster your election hopes in a state that is one-fourth black than to pick a black ticket-mate?

Besides appealing to a slice of African American voters that might not give him the time of day, Ehrlich sends the signal that he is willing to depart from the staunchly conservative recent Republicanism that is outside Maryland’s mainstream.

Meanwhile, Townsend’s choice of a lifelong military man offers reassurance to male voters who might not support a woman for high office. And it counters the notion by moderates in both parties that she might be too prone for their liking to fuzzy-headed liberal thinking.

But beware of carrying the team concept too far. Running mates for lieutenant governor, like those vice presidents, are, by and large, stage props who have little to do with governing down the line.

They serve the purpose of balancing image, if not geography, but their importance begins to fade shortly after the burst of publicity that rises when the news is new.

In some cases, running mates offer help in campaigning. With Steele, who is more skilled than Larson in the hurly burly of politics, that may be a plus.

But understand that the importance of running mates almost always is overblown. That is especially true the next January when, despite perception, lieutenant governors and vice presidents do little more than they are told. (Cream, two sugars, please.)

The power is in the governor’s office, which is why lieutenant governors have been known to quit out of boredom. (Like Dave O’Neal did in Illinois in the 1980s.)

Amid the image-making, there’s some good news for Marylanders. Larson and Steele give every indication of being solid performers who could handle the job if necessary.

As superintendent of the Naval Academy on two occasions, Larson steadied the Academy when its ship was listing from scandal. His other top military posts also suggest that he is more than capable as an administrator.

Steele rode a first-rate education (Johns Hopkins University and Georgetown Law School) into the ranks of corporate law after departing from his goal of becoming a priest.

Like Larson, Steele has never been elected to public office. But with his own story, Steele offers hope to segments of the population for whom hope is a welcome change.

If running mates don’t fall on their face (think James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s VP pick in 1992), they often establish themselves for the next election.

At best, both Steele and — if he takes to the art of politics — Larson could offer future hope to many Marylanders. Even if they don’t play well in politics, both are a big step above some of the questionable characters we’ve had to endure on past tickets.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly