Swisher victory could be a tale of two mayors


June 04, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Bill Swisher is two different people jockeying for position inside his very own head. There's one guy who's gentle and unassuming and self-deprecating to a fault. There's another who talks without prior editing and can't understand why people duck under tables when words come out of his mouth.

One day these two will get together, and Swisher hopes they'll meet at City Hall.

He's running for office again. This time, nearly two decades after he was elected state's attorney and eight years after he ran unsuccessfully for president of the City Council, he wants to be mayor of Baltimore.

This is where the self-deprecating Swisher comes in.

''I'm running,'' he says, ''because I need a job.''

''You don't need a job,'' a guy tells him yesterday. ''You have a job. You're a lawyer.''

''Big deal, a lawyer,'' Swisher says. ''That doesn't mean you make any money. There's so many lawyers around these days. . . .''

But then he starts talking about loving a challenge, wanting to turn the city around, wanting to trim the fat everywhere.

And the other guy, the one who never said no to a provocative remark, comes in.

''One of my workers,'' he says, ''said this isn't The City That Reads, it's The City That Bleeds. How's that for a campaign slogan?''

Does anybody remember 1974? Everybody's first public memory of Bill Swisher is The Campaign Commercial That Will Not Go Away. Here was Swisher, standing beside a police car with a revolving light, and declaring: ''The city is a jungle.''

Some said the connotation was racist. Swisher said everybody was too sensitive. In an upset victory, he knocked off Milton Allen, who'd been elected the city's first black state's attorney four years earlier.

It's nearly two decades later now, but as Swisher gets his mayoral campaign into gear, there's still talk of racial exploitation, still echoes of the city-as-jungle line.

''I ought to apologize to the jungles,'' Swisher says softly. ''Jungles are safer than this city.''

He is the third major candidate in the race. The first two, Mayor Kurt Schmoke and former Mayor Clarence ''Du'' Burns, are black. Swisher is white. Automatically, everybody points to skin color and calls this Swisher's reason for entering the campaign, that he's hoping Schmoke and Burns will cancel out the black vote while Swisher grabs enough whites to sneak in.

''That's not the case,'' he says simply. ''It's just politics. When Milton Allen ran against four whites, they didn't say it was racial. Why is it reversed? A black guy runs against whites, and he's a statesman. A white runs against blacks, and he's exploiting race. Why, that's baloney.

''It irritates the hell out of me that people try to make racial connotations where there aren't any. I told people I wanted to go up to Edmondson Avenue, where there's so much crime. A detective friend of mine said, 'Bill, those women will love you up there, because they're fed up. Color doesn't matter.' "

''There's bullets everywhere, and people getting shot. You want to fight crime, you've got to stop the dope. And here we have this prominent black man, educated, who's talking about legalizing dope. Can you believe this? Can you imagine the message this sends to 12-year-old kids? Here's a mayor advocating drugs.''

Actually, this is Swisher talking a little loosely. Kurt Schmoke isn't so much advocating the legalization of drugs as a change of emphasis: Begin fighting it more as a health problem than a crime problem.

But it's one of a series of broadsides Swisher's already firing at Schmoke. Already, he's hitting the mayor for alleged loose spending: too much waste in the school system, too many bosses at City Hall, too many mayoral bodyguards driving the mayor in fancy Lincolns.

''I'd get rid of the Lincolns and drive a Ford,'' Swisher says, ''and I wouldn't have 15 bodyguards. You don't need more than two or three for the mayor. Why do we have to pay $670,000 for bodyguards?''

The charge seems a little petty for a mayoral issue, but Swisher insists it's symptomatic of the larger issue of waste. With Washington ignoring American cities for the past decade, the places like Baltimore count pennies and hold budgets together with adhesive tape.

William Donald Schaefer, for example, had the good fortune to be mayor when the federal government still seemed interested in the salvation of cities. Money floated up the parkway. Kurt Schmoke has not had that luxury. Nor, most likely, will the person running the city for the next four years.

''Reorganize the whole city government,'' Swisher says. ''There's fat everywhere. There's bosses everywhere, and all these agencies that need to be cut down. The waste in government, my God. . . .''

There he goes, shooting from the lip. It's the side of him that makes some people duck under tables. Then he'll tell you he's running just to have some work to do, and it's the other guy inside his head, the one who's shy and self-deprecating and says it's not easy keeping a law practice going.

Of course, that was his problem back in '74. He was an unknown lawyer. Some said he was running for state's attorney just to get publicity for his law practice. Some say he's doing the same thing this time around.

Of course, in '74, he wound up getting elected. This time around, he's hoping history repeats itself.

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