Mayoral candidates' histories shape their differing campaigns Burns looks to future by remembering past

August 18, 1991|By Martin C. Evans

The system was simple: The lieutenant would look his political boss squarely in the eye and tell of the votes he delivered and the favors he would ask in return. A street-sweeping job for an injured longshoreman. A ton of coal for a neighbor laid off from the mills. Bags of groceries for the widow with mouths to feed.

In turn, the lieutenant would count on the dockworker, the mill hand and the widow's sons to be in the streets on Election Day, dragging to the polls scores of relatives, friends and drinking buddies whose votes were coin of the realm for Baltimore's political machines.

Governors and mayors and councilmen were made that way, and they were expected to take care of the people who had helped. It was by thoroughly mastering this system that a young black man named Clarence H. "Du" Burns rose to power from the polyglot streets of East Baltimore.

Now 72 years old and in the thick of what may well be his last political campaign, Mr. Burns is back on the streets, hoping to convince voters that his feel for politics remains sure enough to ,, guide the city through uncertain times. "I want people to be able to stick out their chests because they are from Baltimore,"

Mr. Burns says. "I want to leave a path that other people can follow."

If he succeeds, he will avenge an election defeat that has stuck like a bone in his throat since Sept. 16, 1987, the night Mr. Burns lost the Democratic primary by 5,000 votes to Kurt L. Schmoke.

For many of Mr. Burns' friends, though, this year's primary was a race they hoped Mr. Burns would not make.

"I love Du, but as far as this election is concerned, I am looking toward the future," says East Baltimore state Delegate Clarence "Tiger" Davis, who describes Mr. Burns as his mentor but is nevertheless backing Mr. Schmoke. "I'm not going backward, and that's basically what it boils down to."

Indeed, Mr. Burns does seem to recall a style of politics that is fast disappearing.

"I could put coal and wood in people's basements, I could get them food," said Mr. Burns, who in 1947 assured his influence in City Hall by scouring the predominantly black neighborhoods along Gay Street for votes to help elect Mayor Thomas A. D'Alesandro Jr.

"I could go to Tommy with a list of seven names and he would call downstairs and say 'I need seven jobs,' " Mr. Burns said. "People began to recognize me as a person in the neighborhood to know and see."

That is the way Delegate Hattie N. Harrison, a Schmoke supporter who got her start in politics working with Mr. Burns, remembers it, too.

"We went out and got people registered . . . and we got the rec center opened," said Ms. Harrison, recalling her days as a 21-year-old community activist in the early 1950s. "I learned then that if your people vote, you got the services. He [Mr. Burns] was that kind of politician."

Mr. Burns said it is his understanding of quid pro quo politics that makes him, a high school graduate, better suited to running Baltimore government than Mr. Schmoke, a Rhodes scholar and a graduate of Yale and of Harvard law school.

Born in 1918 on Caroline Street, a mile east of City Hall, Mr. Burns learned politics from his father, Clarence H. "Mouse" Burns.

The elder Mr. Burns was a ward leader for a Republican political organization until the New Deal spelled the end of Republican politics in Baltimore.

The younger Mr. Burns, who registered as a Democrat in the late 1930s, for the next 40 years would help a succession of mayors win votes in East Baltimore's black community, extracting political patronage in return.

In 1968, when Mr. Schmoke was still in college, Mr. Burns co-founded the Eastside Democratic Organization, a political club that eventually would spin off non-profit organizations to take advantage of the federal dollars then flowing into Baltimore.

One of the organizations was the Eastside Medical Center, a Johns Hopkins University-affiliated organization that used federal Medicaid funds to provide care for low-income people. Another EDO spinoff used a $3.4 million federal Urban Development Action Grant -- the first housing UDAG ever awarded -- to built the 262-unit Ashland Park Mews housing development on land

cleared of slum dwellings.

In 1971, Mr. Burns, who was a locker room attendant at Dunbar High School, successfully ran for City Council on a ticket that brought together the predominately black EDO and the predominately white New Democratic Club-2 -- a watershed in Baltimore political history.

He soon became chairman of the council's Urban Affairs Committee, which decided the fate of millions of dollars in urban renewal projects, including Harborplace. It was then that he developed his close political relationship with then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer. When Walter M. Orlinsky resigned as council president following his conviction on political corruption charges, Burns was chosen to take his place.

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