Heartened by suburban gains, GOP seeks higher profile in city

September 02, 1991|By Martin C. Evans

Republican Party headquarters in Baltimore is on North Charles Street, in a dark basement office with a low ceiling, painted wood paneling, dingy green carpeting and stale cigarette butts in the only ashtray.

Frayed icons of George Bush, Ronald Reagan and Oliver North are tacked along one wall, their faces smiling above tables stacked with Republican Party literature. Although Republican supporters occasionally stop through to browse, most of the time the room has a crypt-like gloom.

But appearances are deceiving. As the 1991 election season moves into high gear, there is a determined move afoot to pump some life into the city's Republican Party.

For the first time in a quarter-century there is a serious contest for the Republican nomination for mayor, with three candidates -- Bruce K. Price, Samuel A. Culotta and Joseph A. Scalia -- mounting vigorous campaigns. A total of nine Republicans are running for the City Council in the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 6th councilmanic districts.

Meanwhile, new clubs have been organized in Bolton Hill and in traditional Democratic strongholds like Highlandtown and Hampden -- reversing a trend of recent years that has seen at least four Republican clubs in the city close down. Only three weeks ago, the Park Heights Republican Club organized with 20 members, and it is hoping add 80 more by the end of the year.

On top of all this is the encouragement city Republicans have taken from last year's stunning series of Republican victories in the Baltimore suburbs, where GOP county executives were elected in Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties.

"You're seeing in the city the effect of what is going on statewide," said Kevin Igoe, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. "We did very well in the 1990 elections."

In many respects, people like Chevy Fleishman, a volunteer with the Scalia campaign, are the hope for the GOP's future in Baltimore.

She is 18 years old. She is from a family of Democrats. She once worked for a Democratic member of the House of Delegates. And she is fed up with the Democratic Party in Baltimore.

"I think this city, which has been run by Democrats, has been mismanaged for years," said Ms. Fleishman, who noted that she and her sister broke family tradition by registering as Republican. "I think it needs to move in a different direction."

But recharging the batteries for Baltimore's GOP will take quite a jolt of juice.

The last time a Republican challenger won a seat in the City Council was 1923, when Daniel Ellison, a Russian emigre who lived across from Druid Hill Park on Auchentoroly Terrace, was talked into giving up time from his law practice to run for office. His departure from the council in 1942 began an era of one-party politics that survives to this day.

To make things tougher for the Republicans, Democrats still outnumber them in Baltimore by more than nine to one.

Democrats have held the wide lead even though Democratic registration in Baltimore dropped by 64,418 -- or almost 19 percent -- since 1987, while Republican registration dropped by fewer than 1,200, less than 4 percent. On Primary Day, September 12, there will be 281,779 Democrats eligible to vote in their primary, and only 30,533 Republicans eligible to vote in theirs.

4 Nonetheless, the candidates hope to make a dent.

Mr. Price, who received the endorsement of the Independent Republican Coalition of Baltimore, the largest GOP organization

in the city, is a United Methodist minister and former Democrat who says individuals must be willing to do for themselves rather than depend on government.

Mr. Scalia, a recent University of Baltimore law school graduate, has attacked Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke repeatedly, saying the mayor has provided little leadership against crime and is using the city's fiscal plight as an excuse for poor management.

Mr. Culotta, a lawyer who was elected to the House of Delegates in 1954, has run unsuccessfully for mayor five times, prompting some Republicans to say privately that he is giving the party the image of a perennial loser. He has said that while the city must manage itself better, the surrounding counties also must realize that the city has special needs and send fiscal help.

Republican mayoral and council candidates acknowledge that their campaigns have evoked suspicion among some Baltimore voters, who regard the party of Ronald Reagan and George Bush as anti-black and anti-city.

And while several of the Republican candidates say the city must wean its citizens from dependence on government services, they are reluctant to take the politically risky step of saying which services they would cut first.

But GOP candidates like Lawrence H. Rose say Republicans could do well in the city because such values as individual initiative, strong morals and vigilance against crime are firmly held by working-class black and white families alike. And these values, they say, are dearer to Republicans than they are to Democrats.

Mr. Rose, a man with a New York accent as thick as Coney Island mustard, grew up not far from the Brooklyn Bridge, where Republicans are almost as rare as -- well -- Republican city councilmen in Baltimore. But he left the party of his grocer father and his immigrant grandfather, breaking political ties he said he might never have had the courage to sever had they still been alive.

"The Democratic Party is out of touch with the vast majority of the American people," said Mr. Rose, a Bancroft Park resident who is running for City Council in the 5th District. "They just don't have the contact with the man in the street anymore."

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