Morton C. Pollack did his first politicking on the streets of Northwest Baltimore nearly 50 years ago, and with the 1991 primary campaign in its waning days, he is again in his office putting the finishing touches on what must be his umpteenth election.
The phone rings and Mr. Pollack grabs it. It's an old law school buddy, calling about reconvening the Trenton Democratic Club, the political base of Mr. Pollack's late father, James H. "Jack" Pollack, the legendary Baltimore political boss.
"I have a place for you to be on Election Day," Mr. Pollack says, a 5-carat diamond ring twinkling on his left pinkie finger. "I have a church where I need help."
With Baltimore voters preparing to go to the polls tomorrow, it's a scene being played out across the city as candidates and their operatives struggle to contact that last voter, cover that crucial corner and deliver the all-important stacks of sample ballots destined to become Friday's street litter.
And as these plans are made, the talk is not only about polling places to leaflet and precincts to hit, about deals made and promises broken, but also about who's paying whom for what and how much money will change hands.
Widely known as "walk-around money," in Baltimore's not-too-distant past it was the fuel powering the political machines and clubhouse organizations that controlled so much of the city's politics. Although the practice of paying poll workers on Election Day was outlawed, there is still nothing illegal about doling out cash in the days before or after.
The political clubs in town may pay poll workers anywhere from $25 to $50, depending on the job they do and the hours they work. For these organizations, this is a time-honored tradition, as essential a part of an election as stump speeches and bull roast glad-handing.
"With our people, if you're going to deliver brochures, hang signs, walk precincts, work Election Day and distribute whatever literature or work on a mailer, I would generally give someone for all of that in the range of $30 to $50," said City Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, who gets help in his South Baltimore district from four Democratic clubs, Veterans of Foreign Wars lodges and American Legion posts.
"Most of the time, people normally volunteer," he said.
Almost everyone who works on Election Day will receive a hearty lunch and a cold drink. But other campaign workers may receive money for their help in putting up lawn signs, leafletting houses, staffing a poll or handing out ballots.
Mr. Pollack says his workers all sign a statement that they are not getting paid on Election Day.
"It's for work prior to Election Day," says Mr. Pollack, who returned to Baltimore about a month ago from Key Biscayne, Fla., where he lives for most of the year. "I will pay them for work done (prior to Election Day). If they don't attend my rallies, if they don't come to my meetings before Election Day, I don't want them. Don't need them."
But there are others who solicit cash from candidates not to further the political process but to pad their own pockets. For this, the maxim caveat emptor applies: Let the buyer beware.
Martin O'Malley learned his lesson during last fall's state elections.
In the heat of his ultimately unsuccessful campaign for a Northeast Baltimore state Senate seat, Mr. O'Malley paid $500 to a man to help distribute campaign literature. But on the crucial last weekend before the Democratic primary, Mr. O'Malley said, the man never even picked up the campaign brochures he was supposed to hand out.
Another candidate in the 1990 election, Peter Beilenson, gave $300 to the same man in exchange for help in what proved to be Dr. Beilenson's unsuccessful campaign for the House of Delegates. Dr. Beilenson thought the money would buy him sample ballots -- cards printed with the names of candidates that are handed to voters on Election Day. Like Mr. O'Malley, he says he got nothing.
This year, both Mr. O'Malley and Dr. Beilenson are running for City Council seats. Both have been called by the man again this year. Both have turned him down.
"I'm not that naive," said Dr. Beilenson, a 31-year-old Johns Hopkins University public health physician who is running for the council in the 2nd District. "We've lined up 75 volunteers (for Election Day). Hopefully, we'll get more. We're not paying anybody."
"There is business to be had," explains another candidate, who said he had been approached by four different operatives. "In fact, I had one fella talk to me and basically what he said was, 'Whatever amount you give me, I'll work with. If it's $500, I'll get X amount of workers. If it's $1,000, I'll work with that.' Flexible is the word."