GOP's Culotta senses end to losing streak Schmoke's opponent in his 6th mayoral race

October 28, 1991|By Martin C. Evans

It is midafternoon at Lexington Market and Samuel A. Culotta, the man with the Ed Sullivan smile and the never-ending campaign, is making his way through a crowd mostly oblivious to his presence.

"How's business?" he asks a merchant, who stops fussing with the stacks of orange and red and yellow fruit long enough to accept from him a piece of mayoral campaign literature.

"A little slow," the woman replies, glancing briefly at the literature and then putting it aside.

"Well, it will be better tomorrow," Mr. Culotta says assuringly, moving on to another potential voter.

For Mr. Culotta, an abiding belief in tomorrow has sustained him through a political career that has produced a single victory -- albeit a stunning one -- in a span of five decades.

Mr. Culotta, the Republican challenger who is staging a shoe-leather campaign to unseat Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in the November general election, is hoping that tomorrow may finally be close at hand.

Defeated in mayoral contests in 1963,1967, 1979, 1983 and 1987, the Republican war horse again is pawing the ground.

"When the conditions are right, I can win and win big," Mr. Culotta said, referring to his victory in a race for the House of Delegates in 1954. "And that is what I am smelling now. The conditions are right."

Mr. Culotta, an attorney who lives near Clifton Park in Northeast Baltimore, acknowledges that the odds are against him in his bid to upset Mr. Schmoke. But he says that this time his luck might change.

Mr. Culotta's campaign is nearly invisible. He has no paid campaign staff, no cadre of campaign volunteers and has posted only a handful of lawn signs.

But he is hoping that perceptions that the city is burdened by crime, poor schools, bureaucratic mismanagement and fiscal strains -- as well as Mr. Schmoke's controversial support for drug decriminalization as a way of ending drug violence -- will weigh against the mayor as voters go to the polls.

If elected, Mr. Culotta said, he will ask the governor to declare a six-month state of emergency in Baltimore and send in as many as 400 Maryland National Guard troops to fight crime.

He would back a $5 million bond issue to provide money to renovate thousands of vacant houses in the city. And he said his priority in economic development would be the revitalization of the retail district at Howard and Lexington streets.

Republican victories over incumbent Democratic county executives in Baltimore and Howard counties last year point to an anti-incumbent sentiment that could sweep him into office, Mr. Culotta said.

"I can't beat Mr. Schmoke, but Mr. Schmoke is quite capable of beating himself," said Mr. Culotta, who has spent less than $10,000 on this year's campaign -- almost all of it his own money -- less than 1 percent of what Mr. Schmoke has raised.

This is not the first time that Mr. Culotta has sensed impending victory. He won his first and only political office in 1954, defeating the Democratic political machine in winning a 3rd District House of Delegates seat, leading all candidates with 32,831 votes.

Since then, he has lost every political contest he has entered against more than a half-dozen political opponents. He lost two bids for the state Senate, the first against J. Joseph Curran Jr. in 1958. He lost three attempts to win a congressional seat, in 1970 and, in 1976, against Barbara A. Mikulski, now a U.S. senator. He also ran for lieutenant governor in 1978.

Mr. Culotta even took on his idol, Theodore R. McKeldin, losing in the 1963 Republican primary in the first of his mayoral campaigns.

Born Aug. 7, 1924, Mr. Culotta grew up in the 1200 block of North Bond Street in East Baltimore. His mother was a seamstress at the old Lebow Brothers clothing shop on Oliver Street, his father a barber.

Mr. Culotta dropped out of City College when he was 17 to help support his family with odd jobs, working for a while at Sparrows Point. World War II had begun, and young Sam Culotta joined the Navy, which assigned him to amphibious assault teams in the Pacific. He returned to his hometown after the war and, seeking to become a salesman, enrolled in a Dale Carnegie course.

But he turned to law, graduating in 1950 from the Mount Vernon School of Law, which has since been absorbed by the University of Maryland.

After finishing law school, he was an assistant secretary to Governor McKeldin before winning his House of Delegates seat. He has been pursuing political offices ever since.

Although he has been a lifelong Republican, his beliefs are considered liberal in the party of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

For example, he believes the city should be given greater taxing power, perhaps including the right to impose a commuter tax as a way of spreading the burden of providing for so many of Maryland's poor.

And he believes the city should use the courts to force the state to end the wide disparities in school financing between Maryland's richestand poorest subdivisions.

Still, David R. Blumberg, chairman of the Baltimore Republican Party, acknowledged that some Republicans had hoped Mr. Culotta would step aside and allow someone else to carry the party standard against Mr. Schmoke in the Nov. 5 general election.

PD In fact, two newcomers -- Bruce K. Price and Joseph A. Scalia --

challenged Mr. Culotta, and the three main Republican candidates split the vote almost evenly in the Sept. 12 primary. Mr. Culotta won by 50 votes on the strength of absentee ballots.

Mr. Culotta said others had urged him to run again.

"I assure you if my peers had encouraged me not to file, I wouldn't have filed," Mr. Culotta said.

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