Council challengers dig in on broader issues

September 09, 1991|By Ginger Thompson

John A. Schaefer has been a city councilman from East Baltimore's 1st District for 20 years and knows by now exactly what he was elected to do: make sure potholes get fixed, storm drains get cleaned and trees get trimmed.

"After I was first elected, I learned the nitty-gritty of taking care of people," he says. "Mrs. Kozinsky in the 800 block of Luzerne Avenue doesn't want a major piece of legislation. She wants someone to fix her sidewalk, which has been cracked by a tree root."

The textbook name for it is constituent service, and it has been the bedrock of successful political careers for generations of Baltimore city councilmen. Week after week, they tend to the dozens of nagging neighborhood complaints, see to it they attend every community meeting and religiously make the rounds of street festivals and crab feasts, wedding receptions and birthday parties.

But this year, their kind of politics is under attack like never before. Throughout the city, aggressive and independent young challengers are going door to door, buttonholing people on street corners or speaking at community forums about less parochial concerns. They have plans to improve education, combat AIDS and teen pregnancy, fight overdevelopment along the waterfront and invigorate the city's economy.

"Pothole politics is dead," says John Cain, a candidate in the 1st District whose campaign has focused on combatting development along the waterfront. "I think the City Council candidates just want to participate in the major issues that affect this city."

These challengers are undaunted by the limitations of the City Charter -- which gives the mayor most of the power worth having at City Hall. They promise that if they are elected they will take greater advantage of the council's current power to cut the city budget and overrule the mayor's appointments.

"I think we're going to be electing a variety of people that will be interested in doing more than getting special parking spaces for people, because this city is going down the tubes," says 2nd District candidate Peter Beilenson, a physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Dr. Beilenson, who has canvassed the center-city district stressing his work with AIDS patients and pregnant teen-agers, says that candidates like himself are winning the favor of voters across the city as the clout of political machines diminishes and Baltimore's fiscal and education crises worsen.

Candidates like Dr. Beilenson and Mr. Cain say the city's problems are so vast they require the full energies of the City Council as well as the mayor and his staff. To that end, Mr. Cain, editor of the East Baltimore Guide newspaper, says he would propose radical changes in the City Charter to give more power to the council "so that it could be a real legislative body with checks and balances."

It is an appeal that is being made across the city. In Northeast Baltimore's 3rd District, candidate Martin O'Malley talks about using the "intangible power of being elected by a great number of people" as a catalyst for change. In Southwest Baltimore's 6th District, candidate Arlene B. Fisher has made construction and renovation of low-income housing her major issue.

But nowhere are the lines as clearly drawn as in the city's 1st and 2nd districts, where veteran incumbents who have prided themselves on being full-time, constituent service councilmen are feeling the heat from challengers who want to attack the larger issues.

In the 1st, Perry Sfikas, a 35-year-old aide to U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski who holds a master's in public policy, stands in sharp contrast to a man 50 years his senior, incumbent Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro, the archetype of the constituent service councilman.

Mr. Sfikas is scouring the streets, telling voters that the city should be using its world-class medical facilities to create jobs and invigorate the economy. "Let's take health, which everyone needs, and build ourselves around that," he says. "Of course, we'd have to beef up the schools in science and math so that our residents could get the high-technology jobs that would be created."

Mr. DiPietro, meanwhile, is doing much the same this campaign summer as he has been doing for the 26 years he has been in the council -- sitting at his desk in City Hall answering phones, referring complaints, and setting up conference calls to let his constituents air their gripes directly to city officials.

"I take care of my people," he says. "That's what it's all about."

It was a lesson learned early on by two-term 2nd District incumbent Anthony J. Ambridge, who says that council members who shortchangeconstituent service do so at their own peril.

Mr. Ambridge estimates he spends 80 percent of his time responding to constituent calls -- from city workers who are angry that they did not get a pay raise, to neighbors who want more frequent trash pickups, to a resident whose pet snake died one day after he bought it at a pet store.

"The City Council is the place people call first," he said. "A lot of the times they call about things that we don't even have control over, but they often don't know who else to call."

Mr. Schaefer, who is running on a ticket with Mr. DiPietro, says he sees a lot of his former self in candidates like Mr. Sfikas, Mr. Cain and Mr. Beilenson. He too wanted to be a "great statesman" when he first ran for the City Council in 1971 -- one who would write bold legislation to tackle Baltimore's problems.

Twenty years later, Mr. Schaefer is in the midst of his sixth re-election campaign, and there are stars in his eyes no longer.

"They may not be there to fix potholes, but they better do it anyway," he said. "There are a myriad of small problems that are really important to people. What are we going to have -- a council that says they don't do potholes?"

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