Lessons for Losers

September 13, 1990|By Garland L. Thompson

A POLITICAL SEASON is supposed to present dramatic lessons that everyone is tuned in to hear. But Tuesday's primary, under-attended and under-supported, generated little drama in Baltimore's black precincts.

That is not to say lessons were not there to be learned. Michael Dobson, a bright, likable fellow with engaging ideas but little political experience, probably learned some good ones in the Seventh District congressional primary. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a two-term city councilman who swept all comers in a multi-sided race to succeed Parren Mitchell, walked away with all the votes to win renomination.

Mr. Dobson, son of Union Baptist Church pastor Vernon Dobson, went to the lists against a man whose supporters raised $80,000 before they even knew who his opponent might be. And Representative Mfume brought other formidable counters:

*As a popular broadcaster on Morgan State University's WEAA-FM, he had built up a wide following all over the city. His years as a student had taught him much about activism, but his radio work probably taught him more about handling public debate.

*Opposition to then-Mayor Schaefer marked Mr. Mfume's first City Council term, forever painting him in some minds as a radical. But Mr. Mfume demonstrated convincingly that he had learned lessons of his own about political deal-making by the end of his City Hall term. That savvy in working with people with whom you may have important differences was a marvel to many congressional observers when Mr. Mfume first moved into the House of Representatives.

*Repeated appearances before the electorate widens the comfort zone for any candidate. Mr. Mfume's Fourth Councilmanic District took in more territory than the 39th Legislative District base Clarence Mitchell III hoped would be a springboard in that 1986 congressional primary. Scandal-mongering can take the edge off many a candidacy, and during the general election the Rev. St. George Crosse tried his best to use what he felt were scandalous issues in Mr. Mfume's past, but the strategy backfired. Mr. Mfume's head-on response, the statements of support from the mothers of his children and the solid phalanx of women volunteers who joined him on the hustings took all the steam out of the charges and flattened the Crosse campaign.

Such experiences, and the broad support he enjoys, make Mr. Mfume an opponent you don't take on without strong backing. Far easier for a first-time office-seeker would be the task of running for a City Council seat, say, or a state legislative post. Even if the race is lost, the newcomer finds out about ticket-cutting deals, the political fund-sharing and supporter-sharing that mean so much in a primary. A strong first-time performance catches the incumbents' attention even with a loss, so they are more likely to listen to new points of view afterward. Are you listening, all you up-and-comers thinking of running for office? Mr. Dobson essayed the race, but the lessons are there for many others.

In another bellwether legislative race, state Sen. Troy Brailey lost his bid for renomination to West Baltimore's 40th District, swept out by the teamwork of opponent Del. Ralph Hughes and Del. Howard P. Rawlings. Mr. Brailey had won the Senate office from the late Verda Welcome, making the pitch that she had served well, but was too old and infirm to continue. It probably hurt him badly to hear it come back, trumpeted by the Hughes-Rawlings team, but that's politics.

Selima Siler Marriott, a Morgan State University aide with a standing hankering for elective office, stepped into the open seat but the team failed to complete a sweep when Rep. Tony E. Fulton ran a strong second to Mr. Rawlings, holding off Lisa B. Williams and a host of other challengers.

There's something rotten in the relations between Delegate Fulton and other members of the Legislative Black Caucus. Whatever it is, the caucus cannot have its best effectiveness with steady feuding between its members, and no legislator can move his agenda without friends. Working out the differences should be a first priority.

In the 42nd District, Delores Kelley of Coppin State College used coalition politics to good advantage to replace David B. Shapiro as a Democratic nominee in a district which had no black representation. No Republicans filed for the primary.

Lessons? They are there for all to see, but the people who study the hardest, as always, are the losers. How else do you learn the ropes?

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