The elderly woman looks confused. Jacqueline F. McLean, a candidate for city comptroller, had just knocked on the door of the woman's Highlandtown home and asked for her vote.
"Where's Pressman? Are you running against Pressman?" the woman asks.
"Mr. Pressman is retiring and I'm running for the office," replies McLean, standing in the doorway of the house on South Montford Avenue.
For the first time since 1963, Hyman Aaron Pressman is not penning poems, prancing and kibitzing his way to another term as city comptroller. Declining health has limited Pressman's ability to perform his duties over the past several years.
McLean, a two-term council member from the 2nd District, 3rd District Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers 3rd, and Register of Wills Mary B. Conaway are seeking the Democratic nomination to succeed the 76-year-old legend.
Republican candidate Marshall W. Jones Jr. is unopposed.
The primary elections are Sept. 12.
Over the years, Pressman's name has become synonymous with the office, and without him, some voters seem to have a hard time focusing on the race. Thus, the Democratic campaign is being fought in the political clubs as the three candidates try for key endorsements.
"It's very frustrating trying to explain to voters what the office of comptroller does and what you would do with the job because they have such a fuzzy idea of it all," said Landers, who is being supported by Pressman.
Former Councilman Thomas J.S. Waxter Jr., who ran against Pressman in 1987, knows all about that frustration.
"When I decided to run, I thought I had a very good shot at winning if I could educate the voters on the importance of the office and how I thought Hyman, who was not in the best of health then, was no longer up to the job," said Waxter. "I couldn't have been more wrong."
Waxter recalled a hot July afternoon four years ago when he tried to test that theory in Cherry Hill. All the residents wanted to talk about was how Pressman had come down to their community festival and danced the whole day long.
"It hit me that day that there was no way I could beat Hyman," Waxter said. "People really didn't care about the office, they only cared about Hyman Pressman."
Waxter lost to Pressman, who campaigned very little, by more than 32,000votes.
Pressman forged a reputation early in his career as a watchdog, guarding against wasteful government spending.
He enhanced his image by writing poems for all occasions, leading every parade that was held in Baltimore during his
tenure in office and being one of the most visible and effective campaigners in the city.
The comptroller keeps watch over the city's purse strings. Besides heading the audit department and the real estate division, the comptroller sits on the boards of the three municipal pension systems and the Board of Estimates, which approves city contracts, all major expenditures and the budget.
The three Democratic contestants have taken their campaigns to candidates' forums, political clubs and the streets, battling each other over qualifications and electability.
McLean touts her business background as executive vice president of a travel agency with offices nationwide. Conaway touts her nine years' experience as the register of wills. Landers describes himself as an independent voice on the council and touts his experience as a real estate salesman.
Early in the campaign, Landers told voters he would institute agency performance audits to ensure that city departments operate efficiently. He also said that the city's real estate holdings should be examined to determine the most cost-effective use of buildings and land. Now, the other two candidates are expressing the same ideas.
And all three agree that -- in the spirit of Hyman Pressman -- the comptroller's seat on the Board of Estimates should be used to advocate issues independently of the mayor and council president, both of whom also sit on the board.
But the outcome of this race is not likely to be decided by issues or qualifications. The winner is likely to be the candidate who gains the most support from political clubs and other organizations that can deliver votes.
McLean has gained the support of clubs in the 1st and 6th Districts. Just this week, she picked up the endorsement of the Stonewall Democratic Club, which has influence in both districts.
Landers has the support of most of the clubs in the 3rd. He picked up other key endorsements from the Mount Royal Democratic Club in McLean's home district and the New Democratic Coalition of the 5th District.
Conaway has endorsements from the influential black ministerial groups, organized labor and the East End forum, another political club in McLean's district.
So far, Landers and McLean have raised much more money than has Conaway.
Campaign finance reports show that McLean has raised $61,277 and Landers $64,747. Conaway was a distant third with $19,525.
Some political observers say Landers' 3rd District political base gives him an edge. Traditionally, the 3rd District has a high voter turnout. If Landers comes out of the 3rd with a significant lead, it could be enough to carry him citywide.
Landers is expected to run well in the newly redistricted 1st even though McLean has the support of the district's political clubs. Northeast Baltimore's HARBEL area, a Landers stronghold, has been moved from the 3rd to the 1st.
Political observers expect McLean to run well in the 6th and the 2nd while she and Conaway battle it out in the 4th. That would leave the 5th as the possible deciding ground.