A political peek at '92

Dan Rodricks

November 06, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

It was a boring election and a cold one at that, so my friend Wingtips decided to tell a story. I wasn't expecting much but, as it turns out, the story said something about where the Democratic Party went during the 1980s, and where it might be going in 1992.

"You like stories with a moral," Wingtips said. "I think I got one."

Wingtips and I were standing near an elementary school in northeast Baltimore. A Democratic City Council candidate, all the way from Greektown, was handing out sample ballots.

"What's he doing here?" I asked.

"He's running here," Wingtips said. "This is the 1st District now."

Oh. Right. Redistricting: Sheila Dixon waving her shoe on the City Council floor, and all that. I remember now. Redistricting chopped northeast Baltimore up pretty good.

Wingtips and I were standing in a section of Hamilton that used to be the centerpiece of the councilmanic 3rd District. Now it's in the 1st District, which stretches all the way from Hamilton through Highlandtown clear down to Fort McHenry. (If you turn the new council map sideways, so that east is on the bottom, the new 1st District looks like a big yellow sphinx.)

What has been the consequence of this?

Well, for one, Mimi DiPietro and John Schaefer got the hook. (Knowing how Mimi and Fast John felt about each other, they probably requested separate hooks.) Voters retired those two warhorses in the primary, smartly replacing them with John Cain and Perry Sfikas.

That's the obvious consequence of the redistricting of the 1st and the 3rd.

It's hard to see what other changes the new councilmanic map will bring. (But I'm betting that Shocket's, the favored jobber store in Highlandtown, soon will be opening a new location in Hamilton. How else for Councilman Nick "Howya Doin'" D'Adamo, the young duke of Eastern Avenue, to consult with his new constituents in northeast Baltimore? He might be the only politician in America who keeps office hours by a pile of rug remnants.)

The political clubs that remain in the game -- once the most crowded and active clubs in the city -- will have to do some adjusting. There will be new faces, new names, new alliances. Single-member districts would wreak even more havoc among the old clubs, causing them to confront Republican opponents with greater seriousness.

All of which is related to Wingtips and his story.

"This was told to me like a confession," he said. "So we can't mention the name of the guy involved. . . . This goes back to '88. Dukakis was running against Bush and both candidates were awful, but one was more awful than the other."

"Right," I said. "Hold your nose and vote."

"So this guy, a ward worker for many years, one of the boys from the old Democratic clubs, he's sizing this up. He knows that, come Election Day, it's gonna be Bush. Bush is a winner. Another Republican. My friend, he's a jaded Democrat, like the rest of us, and he misses the action from the good old days when the clubs ruled.

"Some conservative Democrats ---- businessmen, guys who voted for Nixon and Agnew -- they come around and approach my friend with money from the Republican National Committee."

The money had filtered down to northeast Baltimore because Republican strategists, working through conservative Maryland Democrats, knew it to be a political hotbed with just the right demographics -- middle-class, often blue-collar Democrats likely to step over to the other side, as so many of them had for Ronald Reagan in 1980. The Democratic clubs have been scratching to maintain their rank-and-file ever since.

"So my friend took the money and he started spreading it around to workers on Election Day," Wingtips said. "But he went to this one family in Little Flower -- a poor family that had worked the polls for him in the past -- and he gave them their money for meals and transportation, then he gave them the sample ballots. And he was just about to leave the house when this woman, and old lady, said, 'We can't take these. These are Republican ballots.' And the guy had to take his money back. And he felt terrible, and I don't think he'll do that again."

We'll see, Wingtips, on Election Day 1992.

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