Sam Culotta looks great standing between Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin and John Marshall Butler in the old photo on the wall of his office. He's smiling and happy, dapper in a sharp gabardine suit and a fabulous '50s tie, and supremely confident in the Republican Party.
The year was 1950 and it looked like a Republican renaissance was under way. McKeldin had just been elected governor of Maryland by the largest majority ever, and Butler had beaten the mighty Millard E. Tydings to become U.S. senator.
Culotta was McKeldin's secretary and Butler's campaign manager in Baltimore. He'd stumped the state for both men. He ran for the House of Delegates himself in 1954.
"I topped the ticket in the Third District," Culotta says. "I got more votes than anyone ever received in our city, nearly 33,000 votes."
That's about 3,000 more than the total Republican registration in the city today.
The Republican renaissance of the '50s ended for Culotta four years later when he ran for the state Senate and lost.
Culotta has never won a general election since. He has run for mayor in every election since 1975. But he objects to being called a perennial candidate.
"It's quadrennial," he says.
He wins in the Republican primary, but loses against the Democrats. Republicans have always had it rough in Baltimore, and they still do. There are now 281,779 registered Democrats and 30,533 Republicans. And that's an improvement.
"The ratio has gone from 11 to 1 in 1986 to 9 to 1 now," says David Blumberg, Republican Party chairman in the city. "Since 1984 the Democrats have lost 105,000 registered voters and we have lost 6,000. We're losing at a much lower rate than they are."
Perennial and quadrennial optimism are hallmarks of Baltimore Republicans. Culotta is relentlessly optimistic. And he's not only optimistic, he believes in what his Sicilian forebears called "destino," destiny. He's running this year once again. Who knows when destiny might strike?
But he also checked with his old pals in the Republican Party before deciding to run.
"If anyone I respect would have told me, 'Sam, let it go,' I assure you I would not have filed."
So at 67 he's still running. And it turns out he's facing his toughest primary fight in years, perhaps ever.
"This is the most exciting mayoral primary we've had in anybody's memory," Blumberg says. "The three people regarded front-runners, Scalia, Price and Culotta, are paying a lot of attention to frequent Republican voters, who they have to reach to run against Kurt Schmoke."
Frequent Republican voters among the Democrats, he means, of whom there are more and more. Six people have filed in the
Republican primary, but Roy F. Carraher, Dan Hiegel and William Edwards Roberts Sr. are extreme outsiders.
Bruce Price and Joe Scalia are the biggest threats to Culotta.
But Culotta's not too worried; he really believes in destino.
"I have to say this," he says. "I won the last three primaries. I expect to win this one."
So do Price and Scalia.
Joe Scalia's about the same age Culotta was when he campaigned for McKeldin and Butler. He's 27, considerably less than half Culotta's age, a comparison he doesn't mind.
"The Republican Party for the past 30 years has failed to run a solid slate of candidates who can win," he says. "That's changed this year."
Scalia grew up in Little Italy, where his father, also Joe, a construction manager, can be found playing bocce most evenings, and his mother, Philomena, bakes superlative cakes (once for Jimmy Carter.) He's been active in the Little Italy Community Organization and he's got a brand-new law degree from the University of Baltimore.
"The old, old Republicans who've been around 30 years haven't really been interested in winning elections. We have to give people a candidate they'd be interested in voting for."
Him, of course.
Bruce Price, a 57-year-old Methodist clergyman with a courtly, ministerial quality to his platform style, lives in Butcher's Hill, where he has rehabilitated a half-dozen houses including his own handsomely restored home on Baltimore Street.
He speaks gently of Sam Culotta.
"He has picked up the banner when no one else would pick it up and he has run," Price says. "And that's to his credit. But the truth is, Sam now carries the label of one who cannot win a general election. I like him but he's obviously not the man for the nomination this year."
Obviously, Price's man is Price.
He also has the endorsement of the Independent Republican Coalition, the biggest and most important Republican club in the city.
"After years of endorsing Sam," Price says, "they said . . . we want someone who has a chance of winning the general !B election."
Sam Culotta says he gave the endorsement to Price. He claims that on balloting day the I.R.C. was packed with new members by Scalia and Price. He came in third with 17 votes, Scalia second with 23 and Price first with 25.
"I told all my 17 votes to go to Price," Culotta says. "I made 60 percent possible for Price.