Newcomers in a new environment

Glenn McNatt

July 31, 1991|By Glenn McNatt

ELECTIONS usually produce two types of challengers. There are those who say they can do the same job the incumbent is doing, only better. And then there are those who say the real problem is that the incumbent is doing the wrong job, and that their goal is to redefine the office.

There are plenty of examples of the former type in the upcoming City Council elections. But GlennMcNattthoughtful exponents of the latter approach are relatively rare. Two of the most interesting such challengers this year are Peter Beilenson from the 2nd District, and Kevin O'Keeffe from the 3rd.

Both are relatively young, professionally trained -- Beilenson is a physician, O'Keeffe a lawyer -- and Democrats. Both are also white in districts where blacks now make up a majority of voters.

What distinguishes them from most other challengers, black or white, is a similar vision of what a council member's job should be given the city's changing demographic and economic character. To them, the traditional role of council member as a person who mainly attends to such mundane chores as pothole-patching and tree-trimming is outmoded. They don't knock constituent service, but they insist that in today's environment the office requires a lot more than that.

O'Keeffe, who wrote a book about Baltimore politics in 1985 while still an undergraduate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., says the City Charter's strong-mayor form of government precludes a significant legislative role for the council. The City Council's main strength, he argues, is as a forum for major issues and conduit through which cooperative partnerships with area businesses and other local governments can be forged.

Beilenson concurs that the council "has been a vacuum on legislation and advocacy," and complains that the body "still operates the way it did in the 1950s." He would like to see the council take a more active role in such areas as education, housing and preventive health.

If all this smacks a bit suspiciously of "New Ideas" -- the somewhat vapid buzz phrase concocted by former Sen. Gary Hart before the collapse of his 1988 presidential hopes -- let it be said that Beilenson and O'Keeffe at least appear to have come by their opinions honestly.

Beilenson, a Guilford resident who came into the 2nd District as a result of redistricting, is acutely aware of the problems facing poorer city residents as a result of his work as a physician in East Baltimore's public health clinics.

O'Keeffe, who went to college and law school on scholarships and summer intern jobs, has lived in the same house for 24 years in a predominantly black neighborhood near the Mt. Pleasant golf course. Perhaps he saw a parallel between his own life and that of another Baltimore politician when he wrote in his book of former Mayor William Donald Schaefer:

"Living as a white in a black neighborhood has kept Schaefer close to and responsive to the needs of all Baltimore's citizens and the myriad of complex problems that they encounter. In January 1971, prior to announcing his candidacy for mayor, Schaefer declared, 'I live in a black community and I understand urban problems like housing, welfare and drugs. I don't talk about these things by day and run back to suburbia at night.' "

Both Beilenson and O'Keeffe are representative of a new generation of younger, well-educated professionals who, despite the relatively meager financial incentives of public service, choose it as a vocation. Like Mayor Kurt Schmoke, they are people who probably could do well for themselves in the private sector yet who by temperment feel drawn to political life.

This year, redistricting has weakened the power of the old boy networks and political clubs that traditionally have dominated local elections. That probably works to the advantage of challengers like Beilenson and O'Keeffe, both of whom are waging aggressive door-to-door campaigns in their districts.

But redistricting -- at least in theory -- also increased the clout of black voters and the likelihood more blacks will get elected to the council. That could work against Beilenson and O'Keeffe, even though historically blacks have been more willing to vote for whites than vice versa.

O'Keeffe say he draws his lessons from former U.S. House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill:

"Tip used to say all politics is local," he noted. "But the corollary to that is all politics is personal."

So O'Keeffe spends a lot of time these days shaking hands and kissing babies. "New ideas" notwithstanding, when it comes to campaigning, both he and Beilenson still do it "the old-fashioned way."

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