A 'sizzling' race for comptroller

Dan Rodricks

August 26, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

As a measure of just how boring things are in Baltimore this primary campaign season, the hottest contest in town is the race for city comptroller.

It's blah but true.

bTC Barring a last-ditch coup attempt by Bill Swisher and other hard-liners, the mayor's contest will be a snore to the finish. The City Council races, while interesting, don't have the dramatic potential of the comptroller's election. Trust me. It's the most sizzling political drama of the season. The promise of Election Night 1991 is an entire metropolis waiting up to see who gets to be comptroller and, as such, chairman of the all-important Baltimore City Expenditure Control and Space Utilization Committees. Hot stuff.

Some of you are probably surprised that city comptroller is still an elected office.

No wonder. Here's a job that should probably be filled by an executive head-hunter's search, or with a position-available ad in the Wall Street Journal. A lot of you probably know a good accountant who'd be good for this job. I know a CPA named Myron who'd be great.

Instead, voters of Baltimore are asked, every four years, to make a politician the comptroller. It's stupid, but it's in the City Charter.

Not knowing much, really, about what a comptroller does -- except that, generally, it has "something to do with money" -- city voters have done what voters statewide have been doing for decades with state Comptroller Louie Goldstein: Voting by rote. Starting in 1963, each time they were asked to pick a city comptroller, city voters picked Hyman Pressman.

Hyman Pressman, the elfin -- three generations of reporters have used that word to describe him -- bombastic and sometimes buffoonish watchdog! The Larry "Bud" Melman of City Hall.

How did Pressman make himself memorable? He wrote and recited bad poetry (you should have heard him at the Hyatt Regency ribbon-cutting in 1981). He was a polka god and break-dancer at ethnic festivals and block parties. He gave out proclamations a lot. And he was the elfin -- there's that word again -- clown at the head of almost every municipal parade.

Pressman, a smart pol, figured it out long ago. The only way to become comptroller and stay comptroller was to show up -- everywhere -- and be a giddy little gadfly fluttering about the simple citizens of the old palatinate.

Jody Landers, Jackie McLean and Mary Conaway -- they're all chomping at the bit to follow in these footsteps.


Well, the job pays $53,000 a year.

But that's not the most attractive feature. In addition to sitting on the Board of Estimates and the Board of Finance and all the city Retirement Boards, the comptroller gets to sit on the Architectural and Engineering Awards Commission and to enjoy all the benefits of board membership with the City Life Museums and the Museum of Art. Plus, the comptroller gets a free parking space near City Hall. And I bet the comptroller gets the best seat in the house when he dines at Fuddrucker's or Bennigan's.

So, all things being relative, if you were politically ambitious, but couldn't be mayor and and couldn't be City Council president, you'd go for the next highest office.

And that's what Landers, McLean and Conaway are doing.

How to chose?

As I said, in this age of fiscal austerity and taxpayer revolution, the comptroller should be appointed and subject to civil service provisions. He or she should probably have a strong accounting background. To put it simply, the comptroller should be good at math. But right now we don't know how the candidates handle numbers.

We know from reading the City Paper that Jackie McLean, who runs a successful travel agency, listed only $10,000 in wages other than her City Council salary in 1990. It doesn't sound like much, which means either her business isn't so great or that she's a whiz with the books. We need to know more about McLean's math skills. Landers is in real estate and, while one might think real estate agents are good at math, it's the kind of math limited to property values and settlement costs. Mary Conaway has been register of wills for nine years, which means she has administrative experience but does not necessarily mean she knows how to do long division.

So, instead of having Landers, McLean and Conaway stand for a debate, I say let them stand for a math quiz. They should go on a televised program like "It's Academic" and solve math problems posed by Mac McGarry. That's the motion. It's on the floor. Do I hear a second?

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