Burns and Swisher hang on to yesterday

Frank A. DeFilippo

March 21, 1991|By Frank A. DeFilippo

WILLIAM A. Swisher and Clarence "Du" Burns have a tough time letting go of yesterday.

Ever since Swisher was booted out of the state's attorney's office in 1982 by Kurt Schmoke, he's been busy sniffing the hem of power. He threatened to run for City Council president in 1987. Now he's filed as a candidate for mayor.

Swisher, you'll recall, made something of a name for himself as state's attorney with his John Wayne approach to criminal justice -- shoot first, ask questions later.

And before that, Swisher was elected as a law and order candidate with the help of political suzerains Jack Pollack and George Hofferbert. Remember Swisher's campaign commercial -- the police car with flashing lights and the voice intoning, "This city is a jungle . . ."?

In that campaign, Swisher defeated Milton S. Allen -- twice, in fact -- first in the primary, then in a general election write-in campaign. Allen, it must be noted out of duty to history's scorekeepers, was Baltimore's first citywide elected black official.

So in that sense, Swisher's entry is not only a rematch (if he stays in the race) but a grudge match as well. Allen's campaign manager was none other than the redoubtable Larry Gibson.

Gibson, as every student of human motivation knows, has since helped to propel Schmoke from the obscurity of a silk-stocking law firm to state's attorney and now mayor. In his spare time, Gibson also managed Stuart Simms' election to succeed Schmoke in the state's attorney's office. Along the way Gibson has lost a few, too.

But Swisher is not the only returnee who covets the mayor's office. That other political pioneer, "Du" Burns, the city's first black mayor, is also dancing around the rim of the dish. No question about it. He wants his job back, and with a vengeance.

For Burns it's sunset time. He's been stewing quietly, holding court like the emir in exile at his table at Tom D'Anna's Palmer House, brooding over what might have been -- if, if, if -- if the press had treated him more kindly in 1987, if the early polls hadn't dried up the money, if he'd run a tidier campaign.

In his sapphire-in-the-rough way, Burns had warned that

Baltimore would go to hell in a handbasket if Schmoke were elected mayor. Now he's busy saying I told you so. They don't teach pothole politics at Harvard and Yale.

Both Swisher and Burns view Schmoke as vulnerable. The streets are mean and the alleys are rotting. The city is grungy and its school system is collapsing. Without financial help, Baltimore is in danger of becoming an impoverished welfare colony. Even the bunkies and doubleknitters in South Baltimore want to bail out. They're attempting to annex themselves to Anne Arundel County.

But wait a minute! Times change even if Swisher and Burns don't. Swisher is holding himself out as the great white hope in a city that is now 59.2 percent black. Besides, Pollack and Hofferbert are dead. So are the political machines they built.

Burns, too, is (was) largely a product of the white political machine dating back to his mentors, Willie "Papa" Curran and Old Tommy D'Alesandro.

Swisher is a kid from Highlandtown, where ethnic politics was controlled largely through a kind of green card operation in the Department of Transportation's special services division.

Burns is also an East Baltimore political operative whose Eastside Democratic Organization used to deliver one of the heaviest votes in the city. That, too, was another time and another generation.

Moreover, Burns' benefactor, William Donald Schaefer, was unable to transfer his own political magic to Burns in 1987 at the peak of his power and popularity. Today, Schaefer's in deep dip, and it's unlikely he can be of much help to Burns even if he tries.

Besides, if Swisher and Burns take the trouble to look, they'll discover that Schmoke can attribute his squeak-through victory in 1987 as much to the political handicraft of Sen. Paul Sarbanes and Peter Marudas, now a Schmoke administration topsider, as to the legerdemain of Gibson.

Sarbanes and Marudas organized the ethnic precincts of Highlandtown and defeated Burns in territory that in the bad old days would normally be loyal to either Swisher or Burns. It was on the east side of town, in white precincts, that Schmoke won his close election. That, in itself, is the object lesson for this political year.

But old politicians never die. They just keep coming back again, and again and again.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on Maryland politics.

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