The top mayoral contenders were battling over the air waves as Baltimoreans began trickling to the polls today to select Democratic and Republican nominees for mayor, comptroller and the City Council.
Barbara E. Jackson, the city's elections board administrator, predicted that voter turnout would be the lowest in years, perhaps 30 percent. During the last municipal primary in 1987, turnout was about 46 percent. The lowest mayoral primary turnout in recent years was in 1979, when 32 percent of the registered voters went to the polls.
"The campaign has been very quiet, very subdued," Jackson said, in explaining her prediction. "The campaigning has been very low key. And nobody's done a large voter registration drive."
Much was at stake in today's city primary, regardless of the degree of voter interest.
The mayor's office was up for grabs. For the first time since 1963, the comptroller's race was being run without Hyman A. Pressman, the incumbent, who is retiring because of declining health.
Also, City Council members were scrambling to save their political necks because redistricting has for the first time given blacks voting majorities in five of Baltimore's six council districts.
The new district lines were expected to give blacks and independent candidates a greater shot at council seats because they have radically changed the landscape plowed for years by the city's political organizations. Nonetheless, many incumbents were favored to emerge as winners tonight.
"After the council did redistricting, there should have been massive voter registration drives and work to boost turnout," said Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, who had found himself battling for political survival as primary day approached.
"I think the ball was dropped," Stokes continued. "And I think that is going to hurt the impact of the redistricting plan, although I think there will be some changes."
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, 41, who was seeking a second four-year term, was up against seven opponents for the Democratic mayoral nomination.
His top challengers were former Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns, whom Schmoke narrowly defeated in 1987, and William A. Swisher, a former state's attorney, whom Schmoke knocked out of office in 1982.
Burns and Swisher, who are strapped for money, were firing their final salvos at Schmoke in television and radio spots. Schmoke was returning the fire with radio commercials accusing his opponents of running negative campaigns because "they have nothing positive to offer."
"The public knows these guys," Schmoke said. "They are tired, old voices from the past."
Schmoke and Burns spent yesterday doing some last-minute campaigning, making telephone calls and pumping up their volunteers. Swisher, 58, went through the pre-election routine, but he also was mourning for Ed Scheurman, one of his supporters who was shot and killed by bandits yesterday in his Gardenville gun shop.
"It hurts," Swisher said. "He was really helping me out, handing out literature and pushing me to his customers."
Despite his somber mood, Swisher -- like every other candidate -- was predicting victory.
"It's been a good campaign," he said. "None of us have been dirty. I feel good about things. People talk about apathy and a lackluster campaign, but all of us have been working hard. We've been on the streets seven days a week for months."
Six candidates were vying in the Republican mayoral primary. The winner gets the opportunity to run against the Democratic nominee -- and the 9-1 Democratic voter registration edge -- in the Nov. 5 general election.
In the Democratic race for council president, incumbent Mary Pat Clarke was facing activist Daki Napata, who raised no money and put together no visible organization for his campaign.
The race for comptroller has been perhaps the tightest citywide contest this summer. All three Democratic contenders finished confident of victory after a final day of on-the-street campaigning.
"I don't think it's going to be neck-and-neck," said Register of Wills Mary W. Conaway as she shook hands in Courthouse Square. She said she'd win today at the voting booths.
As the campaign ended, fewer than a half-dozen points in the opinion polls separated Conaway; Councilman Joseph T. Jody Landers 3rd, D-3rd; and Councilwoman Jacqueline F. McLean, D-2nd.
McLean was ahead in the polls and she said she'd win: "Of course." She sought votes at Reisterstown Road Plaza with 5th District Councilwomen Rochelle "Rikki" Spector and Iris G. Reeves.
Landers spent yesterday in a tight hour-by-hour schedule that ended with him seeking votes on the streets of Little Italy as the sun went down.
But, even while most candidates were confident, at least one veteran politician expressed a hint of caution.
Burns, who has been working in politics for some 50 years, said: "I feel real good. But I am not overly confident. It's the people's choice now."