Bad year to be penniless and powerless

Frank A. DeFillppo

January 10, 1991|By Frank A. DeFilippo

BALTIMORE arrives in Annapolis this year with a tambourine in hand and its power in decline. One could have a dramatic resolve on the other.

Beset by severe financial problems as well as heavy population losses, Baltimore also faces political strife on the home front.

The city is relying on passage of all or parts of the Linowes Commission tax recommendations to perform a miraculous financial rescue. But at the same time, its voter turnouts are decreasing, and Baltimore stands to lose at least one, probably two, legislative districts as a result of legislative reapportionment. This translates to two senators and six delegates.

At home, the administration of Mayor Schmoke must produce a reapportionment plan for the City Council. Early indications are that the plan minimizes damage to the current council. But it may yet create widespread unhappiness and distrust.

Meanwhile, Stuart Simms, the black state's attorney, is being pressured to run against Mary Pat Clarke for City Council president, even though Simms is generally viewed as a potential successor to Schmoke.

Taken together, the roundelay of events could create a year of tetchy circumstances for Baltimore in the General Assembly as well as at home. Many of the problems are brought on by the city's leaders themselves.

The numbers tell much of the story. Baltimore city, Montgomery and Prince George's counties used to form the winning combination of votes in statewide elections. It was possible to win by carrying any two of those subdivisions, but impossible to win without Baltimore.

But Baltimore is rapidly becoming a second-class subdivision in the schematic of statewide politics. The arithmetic of the mobile '80s caused a major power shift to the suburbs. A new golden triangle of Maryland politics has been established, with Baltimore County replacing the city in the company of Montgomery and Prince George's.

At the same time, Baltimore's election-day turnouts have been pitifully small, heightening the city's growing insignificance in the statewide electoral equation.

Candidates for statewide and even national office used to validate themselves in the city because of the enormity of the Democratic vote. Today, that vote is sharply abbreviated by dint of population losses and voter disinterest (cynicism).

Non-participatory democracy is the new wave of politics. In the recent election, for example, the vaunted organization of Schmoke (Larry Gibson) failed to ignite city voters.

As a result, candidates for statewide office no longer view the city as an electoral threat. Nor will Baltimore's diminishing numbers at the polls and in the legislature sustain it as a major voting bloc in the General Assembly.

In the city, racial politics is once again rearing its ugly and divisive head. Black council members have formed an exclusive black caucus. When Schmoke unveiled his idea for a reapportionment plan, he met separately with black and white council members.

Earlier threats to have the city's councilmanic boundaries erased by a federal court have been temporarily abandoned. But the rumor persists that black reapportionment strategists will revive the idea of a court challenge if the new boundary lines fail to move more black voters into formerly white districts. Similarly, white council members have privately told Schmoke they will take the administration to court if they are threatened by the squiggles on the new district map.

Two blacks, Councilwoman Jacqueline McLean, D-2nd, and Del. John Douglass, D-45th, already have indicated they are running to succeed Hyman A. Pressman as comptroller. And add to the mix Councilman Jody Landers, D-3rd, who has announced his candidacy and is running with Pressman's imprimatur.

The objects of Schmoke's disaffection are Councilmen Anthony Ambridge, D-2nd, and Wilbur "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd. It's been a rocky relationship since the roiling in 1987 over Question K and the organization of the council itself. Blacks also covet a breakthrough in the 6th District, where Cherry Hill sits like a Third World nation.

Taking on Clarke is like assaulting Mother Teresa. Clarke is enormously popular, even among blacks, and she's the best one-on-one campaigner in the city. Ambridge and Cunningham are privately distrustful of Schmoke's proposal. Schmoke, too, fears that if another black runs against him (for example, high school principal and talk-show loudmouth Boyse Mosley), Clarke will enter the mayoral race. Yet if the heavies around Schmoke attempt to unseat Clarke as well as Ambridge and Cunningham (and others), the polarity of racial politics will manifest itself in numerous ways, all damaging to the city.

To be sure, the dreaded combination of low voter turnouts and racial back-stabbing will unquestionably inhibit the city's efforts at begging in Annapolis.

For one thing, it will disrupt unity of effort not only among the forces at City Hall, but it might also create bad feelings within the city's delegation to Annapolis, where political tugs and pulls trickle down from the folks back home. Several powerful senators have warned Schmoke that if he plays racial politics with reapportionment, he will suffer reprisals in Annapolis.

For another, such action does not present the kind of happy face to other delegations and counties that is worthy of millions of dollars in new subsidies to a city that appears unable to govern itself, let alone bother to express its preferences at the polls. Lord help the city that can't seem to help itself.

It's a bad year to be penniless and powerless at the same time.

Frank A. DeFilippo comments regularly on Maryland politics.

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