Will the 'fed-up' mood of voters carry over to '91?

Glenn McNatt

September 25, 1990|By Glenn McNatt

ACROSS THE LAND the voters have spoken and an awful lot of them had this to say: Let's throw the bums out!

From Maryland to Massachusetts, entrenched incumbents and poll-wise front-runners were unceremoniously dumped by the electorate.

Growth, taxes and abortion provided popular flash points but were by no means the only grievances voters harbored. Indeed, in many cases, specific "issues" seemed less a factor than generalized resentment over the way things are going and deep disenchantment with local government and its leaders.

In Massachusetts, Democratic primary voters rejected the establishment candidate, state Atty. Gen. Francis X. Bellotti, in favor of political neophyte John Silber, the abrasive on-leave president of Boston University whose disparaging remarks about the elderly, Asian immigrants and blacks seemed to strike a chord among blue-collar ethnics.

In Washington, D.C., black voters turned their backs on a slew of familiar faces and nominated Sharon Pratt Dixon, a lawyer and former utility company executive who has never held public office. Dixon alone distinguished herself from the herd with sharp criticisms of embattled Mayor Marion S. Barry.

And in Maryland, of course, primary voters tossed out a veteran pro-growth county executive plus three well-established anti-abortion state senators. While they were at it they threw a nasty scare into a popular governor by giving 100,000 votes to a long-shot opponent who fielded no organization, attracted few contributions and was known almost exclusively on the single issue of gun control.

You can call the voters' mood either cynical or pragmatic, depending on whether you believe the results of this election show that people feel things can't get much worse, or that they genuinely hope change for the better is possible. Either way, they seem fed up with the present bunch of rascals.

Which brings me to the best part of the pundit's art, the glorious prognostication of things to come. Never mind the general election in November; we'll know soon enough how that turns out. More interesting is what the present anti-status quotidian mood portends for Baltimore's mayoral election next year. Specifically, do this year's races hold any lessons for would-be City Hall contenders in 1991?

Mayor Schmoke, of course, cannot be directly compared to most of the incompetent, venal or do-nothing incumbents voters turned on with such vengeance this year. But superficially, at least, there are interesting parallels between what happened in, say, Massachusetts and Washington and what could develop in Baltimore a year from now. It's always dangerous to speculate about such matters so far in advance -- but it's also fun, so let's.

A year from now the city's budget crunch has tightened, as local tax proceeds continue to decline as a percentage of regional revenues. A recession brought on by skyrocketing energy prices due to a cutoff of Persian Gulf oil has pushed Maryland's budget far into the red and the General Assembly announces it is cutting back state aid to local jurisdictions. The federal government publicly renounces its commitment to the nation's cities.

Faced with a projected $75 million budget shortfall, Mayor Schmoke announces drastic cuts in trash pick-ups, fire and police protection. City officials float a plan for laying off 1,500 municipal workers and closing all but the Pratt Library's main branch.

Meanwhile, school reform is dead in the water. The mayor announces that Superintendent Richard C. Hunter's contract will not be renewed, but the school board is hopelessly deadlocked over his replacement. An experiment with school decentralization blows up when it is discovered that a local neighborhood council has fired 20 white teachers and adopted a social studies curriculum that suggests the North American land mass was once connected to Africa.

In the Democratic primary, former Mayor Clarence H. "Du" Burns and Northwestern High School Principal Boyse Mosley both announce for mayor. But polls showing they command less than a third of the electorate between them make it difficult for either to raise funds.

Meanwhile, business and development contributions swell Mayor Schmoke's re-election kitty to $500,000, which the incumbent ruthlessly employs to undermine what remains of opposition from the city's traditional political clubs.

The reluctant, 11th-hour entry into the race of City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, the city's most popular white politician, seems to break things open momentarily. But the effect of that development is immediately offset by the nearly simultaneous entry of a white backlash candidate apparently backed by a rump faction of the old machines. As the race winds down over the final weekend, pundits and pollsters agree that, in a five-way contest, the advantages of incumbency probably will push Schmoke over the top.

On Election Day voters go to the polls and "send 'em a message."

Who wins?

To tell the truth, your guess is as good as mine.

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