Du Burns' face-to-face style marks return to low-key campaigning

August 12, 1991|By Martin C. Evans

It is 7:15 on a Tuesday evening, and mayoral candidate Clarence H. "Du" Burns is standing on a porch on Gwynns Falls Parkway, asking yet another potential voter to return him to City Hall. But the young woman is hardly listening, and her dog is at the living room window, barking furiously in Mr. Burns' ear.

Five minutes go by, then 10, then 15, and the dog is still barking. And Mr. Burns is still talking. Talking crime. Talking trash. Talking vacant housing. Talking about the things he hopes will persuade enough voters to oust Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and elect Du Burns.

The young woman hangs tough, parrying each of the former mayor's entreaties with endless tales of how politicians have failed to keep the alleys clean, failed to keep the rats at bay, failed to keep the strong-armed boys on the corner from imposing their terror.

By now, most of Mr. Burns' campaign workers are halfway down the block, certain in their conviction that this struggle won't end until either Mr. Burns has won another vote or there is no more breath in his body.

They are right. He leaves, finally; and as he does, a campaign worker pounds a Burns sign in front of the house.

Campaign aides say that this is Du Burns simultaneously at his best and his worst.

They say Mr. Burns is playing to his strength by engaging in the face-to-face politicking that seems to win votes by the dozens in folksy Baltimore. But they also say that the method is time-consuming and that he must deliver his message to a broader audience than he can through one-on-one conversations.

Recently, Mr. Burns brought on Robert L. Fink, who took a leave of absence from a public relations firm to become a volunteer media coordinator for the campaign. Mr. Fink will draft issue statements and arrange press conferences designed to attract attention.

Political observers say that Mr. Burns must raise issues more aggressively in the media and that his low-visibility campaign style could be playing into Mr. Schmoke's hands.

"I think that is something we've needed to do for a long time," said Richard J. Colon, a businessman and Burns campaign volunteer. "Du realizes we've needed to pick up the momentum. You're going to see some news conferences, and we're going to start to address some of the issues -- crime, education, housing, health."

"Du's got to bring the fight to the mayor," said Arthur Murphy, a politi cal consultant and president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Mr. Murphy said until Mr. Burns can raise his visibility, Mr. Schmoke has the luxury of being able to run a low-key campaign. "It's smart because Du can't raise any money. It's good boxing."

Mr. Burns, a former City Council president who automatically became mayor in 1987 when William Donald Schaefer left for the governor's mansion, has avoided the press. He says unfair news coverage cost him the election during the 1987 campaign, in which he repeatedly was portrayed as trailing badly, even though he lost by only a few thousand votes.

"Since I'm not going to get a fair shake in the paper, I've got to do it on my own," Mr. Burns said.

A quiet campaign could favor Mr. Schmoke by allowing him to avoid potentially embarrassing questions about the issues Mr. Burns is raising along the campaign trail, which has taken Mr. Burns to busy street corners, crab feasts, family reunions and the city's crowded municipal markets.

Accordingly, the Schmoke campaign also has avoided press coverage. Mr. Schmoke makes carefully packaged appearances before selected audiences, usually without notifying the news media.

Daniel P. Henson, who is among Mr. Schmoke's closest advisers, said recently that the mayor is wise to avoid having reporters trailing him all over Baltimore as he takes his message to voters.

"I'm not in the phase of the campaign where we want someone in his face all the time," Mr. Henson said.

Mr. Schmoke has said he is not trying to avoid embarrassing questions and is only trying to take his message directly to the electorate.

Mr. Schmoke's campaign manager, Larry S. Gibson, said he believes Mr. Burns has been eclipsed by former Baltimore City State's Attorney William A. Swisher as Mr. Schmoke's most serious challenger. Mr. Swisher has been more successful in developing an anti-crime message and projecting it through news accounts, Mr. Gibson said.

The Burns campaign faces other challenges.

The former mayor has had trouble raising money and has spent time he might otherwise have used for campaigning to drum up financial support. He has raised less than one-tenth of the more than $1 million Mr. Schmoke has amassed.

Mr. Burns' 1987 campaign was divided by internal dissent, and he again is coping with organizational difficulties. Aides often say they do not know what campaigning is scheduled for the day. Many who supported Mr. Burns in his last campaign have moved to the sidelines or have joined the Schmoke camp. Before Mr. Fink came on board, no one coordinated publicity.

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