Gene L. Michaels can't find a fare anywhere. That's not good for his candidacy for mayor.
A cab driver on and off for 30 years, Michaels conducts his campaign for mayor of Baltimore from the front seat of his Checker cab. When he gets a fare, the fare gets his spiel. When he drives around for 90 minutes on a hot August afternoon and can't find a single fare, a reporter gets it.
"I definitely think I have a chance to win," Michaels said, as his eyes searched the sidewalk for a lost and befuddled face. "I'm not out here to lose."
He ran a brief campaign for mayor in 1987 and got 986 votes -- out of 159,704 votes cast in the Democratic primary.
"That doesn't seem like a lot of votes compared to the number of people who voted," Michaels said. "But when you think about it, 986 is a lot of people."
At least three, maybe four, other Democratic candidates for mayor would probably agree with that assessment. They are the candidates few people have heard of -- few, of course, compared to everybody -- and the candidates who say they probably would win, or could win, or should win, if only the media took them seriously, if only they could buy more bumper stickers, if only they could find a fare on the crowded streets of Baltimore.
After searching in vain for 90 minutes for a rider, Michaels declared: "Frankly, I think I'm the most qualified candidate to address the problems."
Ronald W. Williams, jobless and broke, said he could win in a landslide if only the voters knew what he believed in. Sheila Hopkins said that her years being poor qualified her to run as an anti-poverty candidate.
Philip C. Dypsky, a former Canton saloon owner, said he'll be 80 before long, "but I still have seven or eight good years in me -- at least that's what the doctors at Hopkins tell me."
John B. Ascher, a devotee of Lyndon LaRouche, doesn't really fit with Williams, Hopkins, Michaels and Dypsky. Ascher campaigns hard, spreading the controversial message of LaRouche, who is serving a 15-year prison term for conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud.
Ascher, 40, who lives in Violetville, describes LaRouche as a "political prisoner" for his opposition to George Bush and "his mentor" Henry Kissinger. A former candidate for city comptroller and for Congress from Maryland's 3rd District, Ascher is trying to make Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's call for a debate on legalizing drugs a major issue in the campaign.
"The day that Kurt Schmoke announced his support for dope legalization," Ascher has written, "he proved himself morally incapable of governing any city, at any time."
Michaels, the cab driver, also criticized Schmoke.
"To be frank with you," Michaels said, "Mayor Schmoke is a Republican. He's not a Democrat. The only reason he joined the Democratic Party was because he had to to get elected."
Michaels, 55, said the other top Democratic candidates for mayor, former Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns and former city state's attorney William A. Swisher, leave the voters cold.
"People are very upset about what's happening in the city," Michaels said. "People are still looking for options. I think I'm one of those options."
Mild-mannered and quite serious, Michaels recently moved into a smaller apartment in Hampden so he could spend more money on his campaign. He said that by primary day, Sept. 12, he will have spent about $13,000.
"I'm eating below standard, and living a little below standard," he said. "Pretty much what I earn I put into the campaign."
He said he tells his riders that the No. 1 issue facing the city is its declining revenue base. He tells them he could make the schools safe in three months and overhaul the education system in two years.
"I'm an ordinary guy, a working man," he said. "I feel I'm much more in touch with the people of Baltimore, the needs of the city, than anybody else running."
Ronald W. Williams' one campaign flier contains this message: "Note*Due to limited quantity of literature, I asked that it be passed around for others to read."
He is 30, unemployed and lives in East Baltimore. He said he filed for the mayor's race as an indigent candidate. That means you don't have any money to run for public office, he said, but if you raise any money, you can pay the $150 filing fee later.
Has he raised any? "No, no," Williams said. "No type of funds have come into my campaign."
Not even any of his own money? "I don't have any money," he said.
If he became mayor, every city resident 21 or older would have money. That is one of the proposals on his one piece of campaign literature: To give everyone in the city 21 or older $2,000 a year "for pain and suffering."
Other proposals are to eliminate property taxes, to provide free medical care for elderly and handicapped people, and to offer to send all students abroad to learn their heritage.
How in the world could the city operate under such radical financial plans?