A bumper crop of 'wannabees'

Glenn McNatt

July 24, 1991|By Glenn McNatt

IT IS A political fact of life that most people vote not on issues ZTC but for the candidate who most excites, motivates and inspires them. That's why successful politicians spend so much time shaking hands and kissing babies. It's hard to vote against someone who thinks your kid is cute.

This year voters' choices include quite a few people who normally would be considered long shots at best. The City Council race in Baltimore's 2nd District, for example, has drawn a fair of number little-known hopefuls because Jacqueline McLean's decision to seek the comptroller's office left an open ,, seat and because the clubs that traditionally broker council races have been unable to agree on a slate for September's primary.

Besides the incumbents, Councilmen Carl Stokes and Tony Ambridge, and some relatively high-visibility hopefuls -- people like Peter Beilenson and Paula Johnson Branch, whose name recognition stems from having run respectable races in the past -- the field also includes half a dozen relatively obscure "wannabees" whose experience, interests and styles vary from from the intriguing to the quirky.

Last week, in order to get the flavor of what the newcomers to city politics have to offer, I spent time with three such candidates, Sarah Matthews, Kevin Brown and Bernard C. Young. All of them sincerely believe they offer something unique to voters and each of them has mapped out a campaign strategy that he or she feels capitalizes on their strengths.

* Sarah Matthews describes herself as a Bolton Hill resident who moved here three years ago from Chicago, where she was a protege of the late Mayor Harold Washington. Last Wednesday she visited social service agencies and public housing tenants along East North Avenue, talking one-on-one with residents about their problems.

"I have a special feeling for the most disadvantaged people because they are the ones who usually are forgotten by politicians," Matthews said. "If I can get them excited enough about my campaign to come out on election day, they'll probably vote for me. The problem is many simply have given up on the political system. They don't think anybody can really make a difference."

Matthews concedes her strategy may not be the most efficient way to garner the 10,000 or so votes needed to win. She sees her focus on the district's poorest residents -- even if they don't vote -- as a moral obligation as much as a political necessity.

"When I talk to them, I learn something about them, my district and this city," she said. "Even if they don't come out to vote, I feel they have given me something, and I feel like I have given something back."

* Kevin Brown ran four years ago and came in 10th in a field of 17 with 771 votes. A colorful personality -- his usual outfit includes cutoff T-shirt, up to seven wristwatches at a time worn on one arm and bright red sneakers -- he is popular with the arts crowd in Mount Vernon, Charles Village and Penn North.

Brown acknowledges that the trendy style which gets him attention in Mount Vernon may turn off voters in East Baltimore. "Maybe they think I'm too sophisticated, or they just don't like the way I talk," he says of his disappointing reception there four years ago. "Last time, it seemed I just couldn't break through. I'm going to have to work on that this year."

Brown says he is motivated by a desire to meet the movers and shakers whose decisions affect everyone. He also wants "to know who they are so I can call them to account when they mess up," he says.

* Bernard C. Young is probably the most conventional -- and in some ways the most interesting -- of the three. A Hopkins Hospital employee who worked on Stokes' 1987 campaign and currently clerks for Ambridge, Young is also deacon in a large, east-side church whose membership contributes much of his campaign's volunteer.

On a recent weekday evening, Young supporters fanned out from his headquarters on East Madison Street through the first-generation black steelworker neighborhoods along Edison Highway. While volunteers stuffed literature in doorways, Young shook hands all around.

"From when I was in junior high I knew I wanted to represent my district," said Young. "The people helping me are people I've known for years and who believe in me. And we are working very, very hard."

Young's canvassing operation proceeds with the precision of a military drill team. Of the candidates, he seems most genuinely at home pressing the flesh and kissing all those babies. His literature cites the usual "issues" -- taxes, crime and schools -- but he has grasped that voters respond mainly to the personal touch. And that's what he offers.

Glen McNatt is an Evening Sun editorial writer.

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