Mayoral candidates' histories shap their differing campaigns Swisher battles odds --and his own image

August 18, 1991|By Ann LoLordo William F. Zorzi Jr. of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

He was a chubby-cheeked lawyer from East Baltimore, a political neophyte, who wanted to challenge the city's first black state's attorney. The year was 1974 and William A. Swisher's friends told him he was crazy. The majority of the political establishment in town, both black and white, was backing the incumbent.

But he ran and he won.

Today, at 58, Bill Swisher still looks as if he has walnuts in his cheeks. If he's not practicing law in Towson, the former two-term prosecutor is out campaigning for mayor against Baltimore's first elected black mayor, the man to whom he lost the state's attorney's office in 1982. This time, his friends are saying, "Why not?"

"Nobody should get a free ride," says Mr. Swisher, who notes that he was the first candidate to file for mayor and that despite what some people have said about the seriousness of his intentions, he has stayed in the race. "I'd love to have the opportunity to prove to you guys and other people in this city that I'm not a redneck with horns."

That's Bill Swisher, opening up in a way that would make most political consultants cringe, acknowledging that what he's fighting is not so much a flesh-and-blood opponent but an image that has curled around him like a halo of smoke. And hung there.

It's an image borne out of his first campaign for public office, the 1974 race against incumbent State's Attorney Milton B. Allen that spawned a provocative commercial in which Mr. Swisher described the crime-ridden city as "a jungle." It was a year when all the contests for courthouse offices were overshadowed by race. A Swisher victory could lead to a drive to "jail all blacks," said the headlines in the Afro-American newspaper.

It's an image rooted in the political traditions of his youth, where a Canton boy like himself with a law degree in hand would talk to his ward leader about a job as an assistant prosecutor. When he first ran for state's attorney in 1974, Mr. Swisher did so with the backing of two of the biggest political bosses in town -- George Hofferbert and James H. "Jack" Pollack.

His relationship with Mr. Pollack formed the crux of an unsuccessful federal prosecution of Mr. Swisher on political corruption charges in 1979. The government charged that in exchange for Mr. Pollack's campaign support in 1974, Mr. Swisher turned over office patronage to Mr. Pollack and quashed a corruption investigation at his request. A jury found him innocent after a two-month trial.

Despite his own problems with the law, he maintained a reputation for having run an office of sharp, experienced prosecutors during his eight years as state's attorney. Still, it was the perception of Mr. Swisher as the law-and-order prosecutor -- the man who made national headlines when he told citizens they could "shoot first and ask questions later" -- that galvanized the black electorate and handed Mr. Schmoke his first and most stunning election victory in 1982.

"He's not what people made him out to be," said Steven D. Wyman, an assistant state's attorney under Mr. Swisher who now works for him in Towson. "He's a caring guy, understanding, and he's a good administrator and that's what counts. He really wants to be mayor. He's got the ability to handle the bureaucracy. He knows the city and he knows what the city needs."

When he campaigns in Baltimore's political clubs and community groups, Mr. Swisher talks about his plans for the city. Reorganize the bureaucracy "downward." Cut those fat-cat salaries the police commissioner and his deputies earn. Get more police on the street. Reinstitute the $1 house program -- not to create another Federal Hill but to reduce the city's blighted, vacant housing stock. Decentralize the school system. Return decision-making to principals and teachers.

Conservatively dressed in a suit, ruddy-cheeked, his salt-and-pepper hair graying to silver, Mr. Swisher espouses a "hands-on," "mayor of the street" credo to contrast himself with the incumbent mayor, who he claims cares only for national image.

"All you need is a manager. You need someone who has the ambition and initiative to make changes," he recently told Northwest Baltimore's 5th District New Democratic Club, which later endorsed Mr. Schmoke with nary a vote for Mr. Swisher.

The license plate on Mr. Swisher's silver Ford Thunderbird sums up his political place in the world -- EX S A. It's been nearly a decade since he left his courthouse office and the hustle-bustle of Baltimore's political circuit of bull roasts, crab feasts and neighborhood festivals.

Over the years he has tried to find his way back in.

In 1983, within a year of his crushing loss to Mr. Schmoke, Mr. Swisher ran for City Council president, finishing third behind Clarence H. "Du" Burns and Mary Pat Clarke.

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