"How much money do you have?" an indelicate soul asked Bill Swisher yesterday.
"I don't know," said Swisher.
Politicians are adorable when they're coy. Swisher, Democratic candidate for mayor of Baltimore, had just dissected the finances of a) Kurt Schmoke b) Paul Sarbanes and c) Barbara Mikulski in tones both overtly contemptuous and nakedly envious.
"But you don't know how much money you have?" he was asked again.
"I have $3.50 in my pocket," Swisher answered.
This was his minor joke. Mayor Schmoke, he'd just finished saying, has about $1 million in his re-election coffers. Senator Sarbanes reportedly has about the same amount. And Senator Mikulski, he said, has $1 million and wants to triple that figure.
Swisher's finances go beyond $3.50, but not by much, not in the world of mayoral campaign financing. He said yesterday that he's got about $50,000 in his campaign coffers. This is also considered a minor joke, at least among people who spend money in major league political campaigns.
With $50,000, nobody takes you very seriously. You can't buy television time, you can't pay for campaign literature, you can't pay for a staff of professional people. Thus, you can barely let a lot of people know you exist.
And this is why, yesterday, having little of his own campaign money to spend, Swisher was attempting to do the next best thing: gracefully strip all other politicians of their campaign money.
But he made it sound like selflessness. He said his campaign is contributing $3,500 to Bea Gaddy, East Baltimore's patron saint of homeless women, to help renovate a row house on Chester Street.
The house would be used as an interim home for a previously homeless family until they can find a place of their own.
On Eastern Avenue yesterday, outside Swisher campaign headquarters, stood Marie Griffin, 32 years old, mother of two small children. She's been living at the Bea Gaddy group home for several months, but in a few weeks she and her kids will move into the new Chester Street place.
"I got picked," Marie Griffin said, "because of how far I came."
She meant the distance from despair to hopefulness. Needle marks speckled Griffin's arms. She described her history of cocaine and heroin abuse, her flirtations with death, the impossible lives her son and daughter have had.
Let's not minimize Swisher's offer in a reflexive gesture of political cynicism. The city has lots of people like Marie Griffin: homeless, jobless, drowning, desperate to outlive their narcotics histories.
They're the sort of people Swisher used to disdain. For nearly two decades, he's carried the psychological baggage of a single television commercial from his first political campaign. The city's a jungle, he said, standing by a police car with a bright rotating light.
Yesterday's gesture said: There is also compassion in my makeup for the denizens of the jungle.
It's a smart move. It adds a sensitive dimension to his public persona. It gets him free publicity. It calls attention to the city's embarrassing number of people who can't find housing while thousands of homes sit in empty disrepair.
And it puts Kurt Schmoke on the defensive.
A little basic math: If Swisher's donating $3,500 toward housing rehabilitation, and he's got $50,000 in the bank, this means he's contributing roughly 7 percent of his campaign money. If Schmoke's got $1 million and wants to match Swisher's percentage, he should ante up $70,000.
"If you were in Schmoke's position," Swisher was asked, "would you do it?"
"Well," he replied, "I'd hate to be in his position and say no."
"But would you do it?"
"If I had his money, yeah," he said.
Not having such money, however, gives Swisher the freedom to shoot from the lip. Also, it lets him call attention to the embarrassment of riches Schmoke has -- and question the motivation behind all those donations.
"It's all special interest groups, people who do business with the city," Swisher said. "They've hit these people for $500-a-ticket parties. They've dried up all the money. Well, instead of giving it to the politicians, why don't these people turn the money directly over to city problems?"
Late yesterday, Mayor Schmoke issued a statement saying he had "lived up to a campaign promise by creating a community development finance corporation and raising $30 million rather than $3,500 for renovating vacant houses and investing in neighborhood commercial areas."
In this lifeless mayoral campaign, it's nice to have a couple of candidates shouting at each other across the rooftops. It almost sounds like a serious discussion of housing.
You can move around this city and see chunks of row houses sitting empty, boarded over, shooting galleries for the junkies. When it happens to one house, an entire block trembles. When it happens to a few, a neighborhood decays. When it happens by the thousands, as it does in Baltimore, a city dies.