Baltimore has lost its central political intelligence

Frank A. DeFilippo

August 29, 1991|By Frank A. DeFilippo

A TIGHT little group of Baltimore's rear-guard political operatives recently sat down to dinner with Governor Schaefer to bemoan the hard truth that right now city politics lacks a central intelligence.

To be sure, their concern owed as much to self-interest as to worrying about whether the city's political apparatus purrs like a well-lubricated Porsche.

For in the gestalt of politics, the survival of the whole depends upon the well-being of the parts.

And therein lies the problem. Baltimore politics today has as many loose ends as a plate of linguine. At the dinner in a private dining room in a Baltimore restaurant, members of the group complained to Schaefer that there's no single individual pulling together all the pieces, acting as conciliator, power broker and, when necessary, stern Dutch uncle.

They were right. But what they fail to recognize is that such conversation is nothing more than an exercise in political taxidermy.

Irv Kovens is dead. So is the organization he built. This is the first municipal election without Kovens since 1959. Kovens was the city's (and the state's) last dominant political boss. He could raise and dispense millions of dollars, work out durable cross-town coalitions, elect a working majority of the City Council, assemble bobtail ballots that would take a puzzle master to unravel.

This is the first year, too, without the active services of the venerable Trenton Democratic Club in Northwest Baltimore. It was always an assumption that Trenton has been around since the pterodactyl. When its founder, Jack Pollack, died a number of years ago, Trenton fell to the leadership of Pollack's son, Morton. But a couple of years ago, Morty Pollack said to hell with it, put Trenton's Park Circle clubhouse up for sale, got married and moved to Florida. He left no instructions behind.

Gone, too, since the 1987 municipal elections are those lovable muldoons who helped lend a festival atmosphere to city elections, Sen. Joseph Bonvegna on the east side of town and Councilman Willie Myers in South Baltimore -- both key players in Kovens' old-boy network. And Councilman Dominic Mimi DiPietro no longer the hell-raiser he used to be. Meanwhile, William "Little Willie" Adams, Kovens' sidekick and manager of the latter's political affairs in the black community, appears to be in political decline. At his age and with his wealth, maybe Adams no longer needs politics as much as politics could use him.

Finally, this is the first election in recent years without a Mitchell on the ballot. For four generations, the Mitchell family was a dominant force in black politics, virtually a political organization unto itself. But the family is pretty much out of politics by dint of death, ill health, retirement and the prison terms served by Clarence and Michael.

John Paterakis, the impresario of the hamburger bun and owner of H & S Bakery, is also a sideliner these days, doing the old dipsy-doodle between new friends and old ties. A stand-up ally of Schaefer, Paterakis is also working closely with the administration of Kurt Schmoke to develop his $300 million colony of townhouses and marinas along the Fells Point waterline.

To make matters worse, redistricting has further fractured Baltimore's political subculture. We won't know anything until Friday the 13th (the day after the election), but it's entirely possible that the redistricting plan could backfire on its architects.

If the pieces play out as many observers believe they will, there could be a net loss of one black from the City Council roster, and council President Mary Pat Clarke's grip over the body could be weakened considerably. Such results could also diminish Clarke's influence over the reshaping of the city's legislative districts next year.

If, as many expect, Peter Beilenson wins the 2nd District council seat being vacated by Jacqueline McLean, and if Martin O'Malley wins the open seat in the 3rd District (where he's competing with his uncle-through-marriage, Councilman Mike Curran), and if the 6th District elects three whites as it always has, then blacks will lose one seat in the council.

The pieces are out there, all right. But Baltimore's a city in political transition. It's true: The city isn't the joyous jumble of politics it used to be. And it probably never will be again. The trouble is, politicians have a tough time letting go of yesterday.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes on Maryland politics.

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