Sparks fly in hot Democratic race for comptroller

August 06, 1991|By Ginger Thompson

The race to succeed Hyman A. Pressman as comptroller of Baltimore is emerging as the hottest contest in this summer's Democratic primary campaign, with all three candidates on the attack but none yet emerging as the favorite.

"This is the only real competitive citywide race," said state Sen. Nathan C. Irby Jr., D-Baltimore.

The three candidates -- 2nd District Councilwoman Jacqueline F. McLean, 3rd District Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, and Mary Conaway, the city's register of wills -- have focused their efforts so far on winning the endorsements of community groups and political clubs in the Sept. 12 primary, and have clashed frequently during their joint appearances at candidates' forums.

At a recent forum in Northeast Baltimore, for example, Ms. Conaway spoke about creating more vocational training programs for youth who are not bound for college and about seeking to use some of the city's vacant houses for the homeless.

4 Beware of such appeals, interjected Mrs. McLean.

"You have people that stand before you and talk about what they're going to do about the Department of Education, or what they're going to do about homelessness," she said. "Well as comptroller they will have nothing to do with those things, and I would suggest that they run for City Council."

At another forum the next night, Mrs. McLean boasted that she has been able to build one of the region's most successful travel agencies.

Mr. Landers immediately suggested that this might be the reason that in Mrs. McLean's eight years as a member of the City Council, she has had a questionable attendance record. "She's missed one in 10 meetings," he said.

By comparison, the Democratic primary for mayor has remained low-key, with incumbent Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke still judged a favorite to win re-election. In the race for City Council president the only opponent of incumbent Mary Pat Clarke announced last week he was ending his campaign.

But in the comptroller's race, the city's black political groups have focused on the opportunity to elect a black candidate to the third highestoffice in City Hall for the first time in the city's history. Mr. Pressman, 77, is retiring after 28 years as comptroller.

The city comptroller oversees the city auditors and the real estate department. The comptroller also sits with the mayor and city council president on the Board of Estimates, a panel of the city's top elected and appointed officials that approves all city contracts and purchases and approves the budget.

Black politicians say that they are concerned that the two black candidates -- Mrs. McLean and Mrs. Conaway -- will split the black vote and pave the way for a victory by Mr. Landers, a two-term city councilman from Northeast Baltimore.

The campaign transcends purely racial appeals, however. Old-line white organizations in East and South Baltimore have either announced their support for Mrs. McLean or have indicated they will support the 2nd District councilwoman, who is the best financed candidate of the three.

"[Mr. Landers] just doesn't have a strong presence when he speaks," said state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, D-Baltimore. "I've been to so many community meetings and he sounds like someone whose never left the '60s. He slides through conversations and Jackie electrifies them."

Mrs. McLean, however, faces serious problems in her own center city councilmanic district. One of the district's largest political groups, the Mount Royal Democratic Club, is expected to endorse Mr. Landers on Thursday, and members of other political clubs say support for Mrs. McLean in the district is soft.

For example, Bolton Hill residents were furious when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke proposed moving their neighborhood out of the 2nd Districtduring the debate last spring of council redistricting.

"The neighborhood was really concerned about it, but Jackie didn't show up at any of the meetings," said the district's longtime state senator, Julian L. Lapides.

Even though Mrs. Conaway has won key endorsements from the AFL-CIO and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, Mr. Irby and other black political leaders say that they are supporting Mrs. McLean.

"And a majority of the resources from the black community are in Mrs. McLean's camp," Mr. Irby said. "She's the best organized and most people see her as being a strong, independent voice in the City Council."

Despite the acid tone of their exchanges, the three candidates seem to agree on many matters of substance.

All, for instance, say that city agencies must reorganize their budgets so that more is spent on the delivery of services than for administrative costs, all agree on the use of independent consultants to review spending and performance of city agencies and all three promise to make the comptroller's office more accessible to the public.

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