Old war horses relish campaigns--but fall behind younger rivals New era leaves Burns defeated--but unbowed

September 13, 1991|By Michael Ollove M. Dion Thompson of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

He was a young man when he first started working voters outside School 85 on election days. On the eve of his 73rd birthday yesterday, he was out there again, puffing on his Winstons, flirting with women and calling to friends leaving the voting booths inside.

"Did you take care of me?" Clarence H. "Du" Burns asked. "Did you take care of me?"

They didn't. Not in his home precinct in East Baltimore. Not ithe rest of the city either. After 35 years in the rough-and-tumble of politics, a subdued Du Burns last night acknowledged that he had lost his magic with the voters and that it was time for him to leave behind the avocation he had loved so long.

"I won't run anymore," the one-time jazzman, locker-room attendant, City Council president and mayor of Baltimore told a modest gathering of well-wishers at his campaign headquarters in the Preston Room. "I look at today, I feel that I don't belong in the field of politics as it is."

The greatest disappointment came when he learned that he had failed for the first time ever to carry his home precinct, in Berea. Earlier in the day, he had boasted, "Nobody beats me here. I expect to beat the pants off everyone here."

That was at midmorning, when all things still seemed possible: A dapper old man who relished being the mayor of Baltimore could exact his revenge against the upstart who four years ago took away his job.

For most of the day, Mr. Burns remained rooted outside EasBaltimore's School 85, a squat, brick building on East Oliver Street where he has voted for four decades. Next door is Berea Apostolic Towers, a 104-apartment building for the elderly which Mr. Burns championed when he was City Council president. Behind the school is a recreation center he lobbied for as a 2nd District councilman. All around are streets and alleys he made sure got repaved and repaired.

So it was no wonder that he was brimming with confidence, greeting almost everyone by name who came to School 85 to vote and receiving their assurances that they never thought twice about which lever to pull.

"Who else, Du?" said one elderly man. "Who else?"

Mr. Burns beamed. "I'm a lucky man, ain't I?" he said softly. "It's great to have so many people love you."

If ever there was a political addict, it was Mr. Burns. He began politicking in the '40s, delivering East Baltimore votes for Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. Mr. Burns never got it out of his system.

"Just imagine," he said yesterday. "I've been doing this for 35 years, and I'm not tired of it."

That did not seem the case four years ago when Mr. Burns lost to Mr. Schmoke by less than four percentage points.

Usually an ebullient man, Mr. Burns displayed uncharacteristic bitterness as the 1987 contest wore on. He angrily criticized the media for harping on the disorganization of his campaign and their own polls, which showed him -- inaccurately it turned out -- to be hopelessly behind.

When Mr. Burns lost his job as mayor in that election, "I figured I'd had enough," he said yesterday.

Within two years, he said, old friends beseeched him to take another shot at Mr. Schmoke. "I kept saying I don't want to be bothered, but they kept worrying me and worrying me and worrying me. Finally, I figured, 'Who am I to say no if they say they need me and they're going to foot the bill?' "

As this campaign progressed, Mr. Burns seemed to gain more and more energy, rejoicing in the encouragement he received from voters. Though still unforgiving of the media, Mr. Burns was ever cheerful on the campaign trail, playing the patient schoolmaster who understood that Baltimore simply needed to get the Schmoke mythology out of its system before returning to its senses.

"Kurt's a nice guy, but he wasn't prepared to be mayor of a big city," he said dismissively yesterday.

He seemed disgusted with Mr. Schmoke's performance; schools, neighborhoods and crime have all gotten worse under Mr. Schmoke's stewardship, he said.

He was again the underdog in the campaign, and this time he was the challenger, not the incumbent. He raised only a fraction of the money that Mr. Schmoke did and had to rely on a staff of volunteers. While many in Baltimore never took his candidacy seriously, Mr. Burns insisted he was in it to win, not to send a message.

After the disappointing vote totals came in, he sadly acknowledged that the politics that he had practiced -- the world of strong political clubs and bosses and "walk-around" money -- was history.

"I don't understand it," he said. "Politics has changed. Even some of the best political organizations who could deliver anybody can't do it now.

"It's a new kind of politics. I don't know what people vote on but they don't vote on merit."

He insisted that no one feel sorry for him. "If you think I'm going to just go away and die, forget it," he said at mid-day. "If I don't win, five days later you'll find me in New Orleans having fun, listening to some finger-popping music."

He leaves behind an enduring impression of a man who loved politics all the way through his last day in it. Standing in front of School 85, he reveled in the camaraderie of campaigning and old friendships.

Feigning offense, he protested when a longtime friend embraced a campaign volunteer instead of him. "Hey, I ain't no secondhand man," he said. "Don't come hugging me after you hugged another man."

She raced into his arms, and he laughed and laughed.

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