Hard up as ever, Du Burns trying again for mayor


March 28, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Sixty years ago, when the youthful Clarence H. Burns was so poor he hadn't even bought himself a nickname, he used to hitchhike from East Baltimore to Washington, D.C., to watch the old Washington Senators play baseball at Griffith Stadium.

"How much were tickets back then?" somebody asked Burns the other day.

"Tickets?" asked the former mayor of Baltimore. "I never had money for a ticket. We used to stand outside the park and punch knotholes in the outfield wall. You'd look through the holes the whole game. And when it was over, you'd put the knot back in the hole, so you could come back to it, and it'd still be yours the next game."

"So you never actually sat inside the ballpark?"

"Never had the money to buy a ticket," Burns said.

Times have changed, but only by degree. Two nights ago, Burns was selling tickets to his very own political fund-raiser, but he's still on the outside and still trying to get a better look at the real game.

He wants to run for mayor again, when almost everybody says he can't win. Of course, everybody said the same thing four years ago, when he didn't win but managed to give many in the Kurt Schmoke organization coronary occlusions.

Tuesday night at Martin's West, in Woodlawn, Burns held a $100-a-ticket affair that attracted about 500 people. That's about $50,000, not including expenses. If it sounds like nice money, consider that the Schmoke organization has about 20 times that much already in the bank and more on the way.

And so Du Burns, old enough to have his own nickname now but still wondering if he's got enough money, has to decide how to make the long-distance hitchhike to try to get back into City Hall.

"Oh, I'm in this race to stay," he was saying yesterday, as he and some aides counted up the previous evening's take. "I've got to get an office and some telephones and get some printing done. But that's it. I'm in this thing."

What killed him last time were cash and polls. The early polls said he was far behind Schmoke, which dried up potential contributors, which in turn kept Burns from mounting the kind of advertising campaign that might have closed the final, narrow Election Day gap.

Four years ago, he hardly had a mayoral record of his own on which to stand. Thrust into office when William Donald Schaefer departed for Annapolis, Burns served barely a year as mayor. But he was Schaefer's right hand during many of the storied renaissance years.

"That's what we've got to get back," Burns said yesterday. "There are so many dissatisfied people out here now, who kept asking me to make this comeback. And I'm not talking about those the mayor arbitrarily fired. He has that right. But look at this redistricting thing."

Faced with the most sensitive of issues -- dividing the city along relatively painless racial lines -- City Council members handled it in the most insensitive way, sniping at each other in public, heightening voters' anxieties, calling upon ancient racial divisions in order to solidify their own jobs.

And Mayor Schmoke, while far more diplomatic, involuntarily set off much of the fight with his initial redistricting plan. It called for three white districts and three black. To black council members, who have watched the city's population shift more heavily black over the last 20 years while the council rolls stayed majority-white, it was a slap in the face.

Their response was to create five majority-black districts and one white.

"I would have introduced a more equitable plan to begin with," Burns said, "one that wouldn't have been looking out for my own political safety. Maybe four black and two white. A better plan wouldn't have gotten the council all riled up.

"But now you've got everybody upset, and I don't know if it can be healed. There's too much venom. People remember, they don't forget. A lot of people feel like they got trampled on."

He's referring to white council members who thought the new redistricting was based less on fairness than payback for generations of white politicians excluding blacks from power.

"I'm not a guy who wants to delve into history," Burns said. "Bygones have got to be bygones. This is a new day. I don't want to talk about slaves, because all the slaveholders are dead. You can't talk to people in a graveyard.

"This city has been built on the concept of neighborhoods. That's what we've got to keep in mind, neighborhoods and coalition politics. Hell, we went through this 10 years ago, and feelings were running high then, but we didn't beat each other up.

"We could have elected blacks with the old district makeup. You don't think we could have elected blacks from the 6th District? There's enough black voters down there. The leadership just hasn't gotten them to vote."

The question is: How many will vote now for Du Burns, a man who's been underestimated his whole life but kept rising in spite of it.

"Nobody gives away power," he said yesterday. "You form a coalition, or you take it. If you take it, there's bloodletting. That's why I'm a coalition guy."

Final question: Does the city of Baltimore still have the heart for coalition politics?

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