Anecdotes and faith provide fuel for 'Du' Burns' comeback effort


June 30, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the cool of an air-conditioned room, Clarence "Du" Burns leans back and calmly reaches for an anecdote.

"They told me," he says, " 'Don't go to Hampden.' "

Immediately, the premise of the story is beautiful: Black man, white neighborhood, dawn of Du's long political career. He's running for City Council back then, so nobody in Hampden knows who he is yet.

"They told me," he says, " 'If you don't go into Hampden, nobody'll know you're black. They'll just see your name on the ballot, and they'll think you're Irish, and they'll vote for you.' "

Everybody around Du Burns laughs. He is a master storyteller, a gentle spirit bridging the generations, reminding us of tough times survived by pluck and by guile.

"But," he says now, "I felt bad. I always felt like I could represent anybody. You know, you represent all the people, whether they voted for you or not. So after the election, I went over to the Hampden Democratic Club, and I told 'em that.

"I said, 'I'll pay attention to your problems, and skin color don't matter.' And they applauded me, and we all drank some beers. See, they had the same problems as everybody else, only they just didn't know it. And then we drank some more beers.

"So they love me in Hampden. Only thing is, those people drink too damn much beer for me."

He lapses gently into the punch line, a man completely at his ease as a room full of people waits to question him on his campaign for mayor of Baltimore. He might just as well be sitting on the back porch after supper, or hanging out at the Palmer House on Eutaw Street with his old pals.

And, in a sense, that's the premise of his campaign: It's good old Du. He's been around forever. Vote for him on history and on faith.

The question, as he bids again for the victory that barely eluded him four years ago, that has burned his insides ever since, is whether history and faith are enough any more.

"I want to talk about school textbooks . . ."

The woman's standing right in front of Burns in a flowered print dress. She's the first questioner of the day at Programming Systems Institute, a Lexington Street school for young adults learning computer skills.

For the next hour, Burns will take questions and then answer them, more or less. More, in that he'll answer exactly 11 questions in that hour. It's an average of more than five full minutes an answer.

Less, in that the responses don't quite answer the questions.

School textbooks? "Maybe I'm not up on it the way I should be," he allows.

"Running for office is very difficult. I was out campaigning at the Pepsi plant at 6 this morning, and I won't finish until 11 o'clock tonight, so I can't stop and read . . ."

Money for college? "If there's no money for college, you do the best you can in high school. I don't know what's out there now. I used to know. I just can't keep up with everything out there, until I hang up my shingle as mayor."

Drug traffic? "Stop 'em from getting the money. Every time we find one of those boats, blow it up with every man on it. Hang 'em by their thumbs and let kids go by and stick pins in 'em."

Juvenile crime? "Go back to some of the old things that worked. The police on my street, they knew me. They saw me stealing an apple off a cart, I knew I'd get my ass whipped. Those things worked."

"Yeah," someone in the audience laughs, "but today they'd call it child abuse."

"Yeah, it's child abuse now," Burns says. "To me, this is not a sensible world. But I know what you want. I know."

Of course he does. He's Du Burns, everybody's favorite political father figure. He's been around forever, bridging gaps between the races, cementing the political deals, being the good foot soldier for the mayor named Schaefer who was working a municipal miracle.

He knows where all the future miracles are waiting to be unearthed, doesn't he? He knows how to get the city out of its sense of lethargy, doesn't he? He's the steady hand during a turbulent time, isn't he?

Isn't he?

Well, it's tough to tell. There's a certain charm in the former mayor telling us he stole an apple off a cart when he was a little kid. (Kurt Schmoke would never have done that. As a child, he was home studying for his law boards.) But it doesn't tell us what Burns is thinking about this paralyzing problem of juvenile crime.

Boasting of blowing up boats carrying drugs isn't a policy, it's a grunt. (Schmoke's still catching flak over his suggestion of decriminalizing drugs, but at least it was a real proposal.)

Admitting you don't know about school textbooks or money for college is disarming in its honesty (Schmoke would never admit not knowing something; Rhodes scholars are required by law to know all the test answers to everything), but it indicates the former mayor's been out of the game for a while.

For Du Burns to win, he's got to offer more than a campaign based on anecdotes. For him to make it close, the way he did four years ago, he's got to show he's on top of the city's problems. He's got to get specific about solutions.

Right now, he sounds like a man without a plan, declaring: Vote for me on faith. Even if you love him, you need to hear more than that.

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