With only a week remaining until the Nov. 5 general election, the faint stirrings of a campaign are beginning to develop over Question L -- the ballot referendum that would create 18 single-member districts in the Baltimore City Council.
The campaign over the ballot issue -- which has been backed by the city's Republican Party and by the Baltimore NAACP -- has until now been almost invisible. There have been no mass mailings, no media advertisements and only a couple of poorly attended debates. Many community activists say they know little about the issue and have seen no evidence of interest in it in their neighborhoods.
But while supporters of the single-member districts initiative admit that their campaign "has not energized" as they had hoped, they say they will take advantage of the lull to begin a media campaign for Question L this week.
David Blumberg, head of the city Republican Party, says the GOP has raised about $6,500 and will spend it all on media advertising to be aired and published at the end of this week. The Republicans, who gathered over 15,000 signatures to get the question placed on the ballot, say that on election day they plan to have volunteers at the major polling places, side-by-side with those working for Democratic opponents of the measure such as Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke.
"If you do things too soon in an election cycle you wind up in the last 10 days with no money," Mr. Blumberg said. "The people opposed to this could outspend us under the table so for us to be effective then we have to be effective and low-key. If we speak too much too early then that can be a detriment."
So far, Mayor Schmoke and Mrs. Clarke have been content with mentioning their opposition to single-member council districts at neighborhood forums and having their campaign workers refer to it when canvassing voters by telephone. On Election Day, they say they will indicate their opposition to Question L on the sample ballots they will distribute.
"It's not a heated kind of issue," says Mrs. Clarke. "It's one that people will deal with no matter which way it goes."
Republicans and leaders of some black organizations such as the NAACP say that the plan would give their constituencies the opportunity to win more political power. Republicans are outnumbered by Democrats by better than 9-to-1 in Baltimore and hold no elected office; blacks make up about 60 percent of the city's population, but in the current City Council hold only sesven of the 18 seats.
The current configuration of six districts with three council members each has existed since 1923, and Baltimore is one of the few major cities in the country that does not have single-member districts.
Mr. Blumberg says that the lack of a high-visibility campaign for Question L will probably work to the advantage of the proponents of single-member districts.
"All things being equal, we're in the driver's seat," he said. "They have not been able to organize so far to campaign against it and if nothing was done on either side of this question it would pass."
In fact, that is a concern of some opponents of the measure, who say that voters tend to vote yes on bond items. And if they are not informedabout Question L, they may inadvertently vote yes on it as well.
"It's going to be won or lost on election day," said City Councilwoman Jacqueline F. McLean, D-2nd, who is the Democratic candidate for comptroller.
"I don't think the masses of voters know about Question L, so it's going to be a matter of getting ballots to voters as they go into the polls."
Many elected officials said they are not opposed to the concept of single-member districts, but they say that 18 districts would make it harder for council members to reach a consensus on controversial issues.
Although the proposal would lead to a major change in the structure of the city council four years from now, many community leaders said they know little about it.
"I haven't heard much about Question L," said Carl Wilkens, out-going president of the South Baltimore Improvement Association. "If the Republican Party wants it, they sure as hell haven't done much about it."
But, after listening to a brief explanation of the referendum, he said, "I wouldn't mind seeing it pass. If you had 18 districts, the council people would live in the area they represent and they'd have a real stake in that area."
"I can see it both ways," said Sandy Sparks, executive director of the Greater Homewood Community Corp. in North Baltimore. "What I like about [Question L] is the fact that you would have a representative from the neighborhood, but at the same time that one representative could be just as disinterested as three can be."
In West Baltimore's Coppin Heights, community leader Al Hathaway was less enthusiastic about the referendum, but he also said no one had been in the community to campaign for or against Question L.
"It's almost been a non-issue," he said. ". . . It is not an issue that generated out of the communities. It came from the Republicans. So we have no vested interest."