Year of the Voter

C. FRASER SMITH

November 08, 1992|By C. FRASER SMITH

The people of Catonsville got up last Tuesday to do one of the things they do best, participate.

Voter turnout across the country was up sharply. In Maryland, it was up 3 percent over the presidential election of 1988. In Catonsville, it was up 13 percent.

This was the year when suburbs were expected to cast a majority of votes in a presidential election for the first time. Catonsville did its part.

But it was not that people here believed they would find a savior in George Bush, Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, Andre Marrou or Lenora Fulani.

"Who's going to make it all better?" asked Catonsville businesswoman Wendy Enelow, quickly offering her answer: "Nobody I know." She struggled through the field and settled confidently on Bill Clinton. "He had compassion," she concluded.

Her ally in civic enterprise, Steve Whalen, went for Mr. Bush. He kept his string alive. He has never voted for a Democrat. The economy is a powerful argument, he said, but it's not so amenable to policy when the deficit is so large.

Mr. Clinton, he says, has his work cut out as he tries to get the country moving.

"How much lower can you push interest rates (to stimulate growth)? How much can he balloon the deficit? He doesn't have a lot of leeway. He might be able to spend $25 to $50 billion for public works, but that's not much compared to the gross national product. Those are the constraints."

Overall, this suburb showed the result Mr. Clinton wanted. After years of heavy votes by Reagan-Bush Democrats, some said this was the last chance for a Democrat. One more term under the GOP, and a lot of these people would be Republicans without the Reagan qualifiers.

They were this time, too, in Catonsville. But the 43-40 margin was only a fraction of what it was in 1988. And, with a solid 19 percent going to Mr. Perot, the net effect was a loss for Mr. Bush.

Reagan Democrat Dot Gary, who is part owner of a real estate agency, joined the returning Democrats: "You have the drugs, you have the crime, you have all the domestic problems that are so defeating and Bush didn't have an answer. There was absolute denial for so long. Then you had Ph.D.s walking the street."

Not that Catonsville is waiting for a miracle. Its voters want leadership. They want action. They want thoughtful grappling with problems.

They do the grappling themselves. In the 1980s, they showed how discriminating American voters can be. They voted Republican for president, Democratic for Senate and governor, Republican and Democrat for county executive, in favor of a partial ban on handguns and against a limitation on taxes. Few in Catonsville are anxious for higher taxes, but the limit was a straitjacket.

The point is this: They're thinking out there.

And they're not waiting for miracles or saviors who can, as Ms. Enelow says, "make it better." They haven't lost faith in government, judging by the increased voting. They haven't given up on themselves.

* When the county couldn't afford to re-pave a street behind shops north of Frederick Road in the village of Catonsville, the proprietor of the Hilton Flower Shop, Fran Medicus, cajoled businessmen in the area to come up with half the money.

* Catonsville does not have a mayor. But when mail arrives at the local post office on Frederick Road addressed to the mayor, they send it to Fran. If she doesn't know the answer, she knows who does.

* When kids look for work at Joe Chilcoat's chain of 7-Eleven stores in Catonsville, he lays down the law on school attendance. No study, no work, he says.

Welcome once again to Catonsville, suburban battleground in the 1992 election, a big city suburb with small town values, a sprawling place where people pull together.

Ms. Medicus, Ms. Enelow and others recently convinced Baltimore County police to put patrolling officers on bicycles in their neighborhoods and around the schools. Kids and adults go out in the evening and ride with the cops. Everybody feels better. The scale of life seems just a bit more manageable.

It was like that on Election Day, too.

Joe Chilcoat, the 7-Eleven store owner, wanted change and went with Ross. The all-American thing to do, he said, was to stick with your choice -- to reject the pragmatic urging of those who said his vote would be wasted.

A vote is not wasted, by definition.

3' Not in Catonsville, not in the USA.

Fraser Smith covers Maryland politics for The Baltimore Sun.

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