The Voters Decided To Wear Old Shoe

COMMENT

November 07, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

Reality hit about 9 on Election Night in the Callahan and Vincent camps -- just about the time that a triumphant Mayor Al Hopkins shouted, "Beat Army!" and launched into a rendition of "I Don't Know Why I Love You Like I Do."

This is the kind of mayor the city of Annapolis wants. Former Mayor Dennis Callahan and downtown clothier Larry Vincent understood that the moment the election returns came in.

At 68 years old, Mr. Hopkins didn't just beat them; he shellacked them. Given the choice of two young, talented, articulate and forward-thinking men, Annapolitans overwhelmingly chose Al.

Messrs. Vincent and Callahan got the message.

The latter's 1989 loss to as unlikely a conqueror as Mr. Hopkins had been gnawing at him for four years, but no more. "I know that the last election was not a fluke," he said after seeing the results. He won't run for mayor again.

Neither will Mr. Vincent. He, too, says two losses to Al Hopkins are enough.

How was the mayor able to pull off such an unequivocal victory in a race that was supposed to be close?

Clearly, the vote didn't split the way everyone thought it would.

Even though partisanship often counts for little in local races, the prevailing wisdom was that Republicans, who comprise one-third city voters, would stick with Mr. Vincent, giving him a solid base. Assuming that Mr. Callahan and Mr. Hopkins would split the remaining vote and that he would draw at least some Democratic support, Mr. Vincent was assumed to have a good shot at winning.

None of this happened. The electorate didn't divide into GOP voters for Mr. Vincent and everybody else for Mr. Hopkins or Mr. Callahan; it split into "pro-Al" and "anti-Al" camps. The "antis" split their votes, between Mr. Vincent and Mr. Callahan.

There's a less obvious but even more significant factor, however. It involves the mind of the voter.

Journalists tend to forget that what's important to them isn't always important to voters.

At polling places all over the city, citizens who chose Mr. Hopkins made it clear that they didn't care about the most frequent criticisms leveled at him -- if, indeed, they were aware of them at all.

The mayor has been criticized for having a thin agenda, for lacking "vision." But having their trash picked up, their roads fixed and a new traffic signal installed when the backups get too bad is all the agenda most people expect.

He's been gibed at for his fractured syntax, for being gaffe-prone. People couldn't care less. Most voters I talked to couldn't have named a Hopkins gaffe if you'd paid them.

The authority Mr. Hopkins vests in City Administrator Michael Mallinoff was a major issue in debates and the newspapers. But it wasn't an issue for voters. As long as day-to-day city government is running smoothly -- and it is -- they don't care whether Mr. Hopkins, Mr. Mallinoff, or for that matter, Mrs. Hopkins is managing things.

A lot of voters didn't even perceive the office of mayor as being all that important. If Mr. Hopkins has been criticized for being merely a ceremonial figurehead, that is precisely what many residents believe his job is.

The mayor's race was the centerpiece of media coverage. But the aldermanic races were more important to many voters; for them, the mayoral contest was an afterthought.

In Ward 6, for example, Norwood Nutter said he showed up specifically to cast a ballot for Kenny Kirby, the unsuccessful aldermanic challenger. He did vote for Mr. Hopkins -- because he was on Mr. Kirby's ticket.

Mr. Vincent opined that Tuesday's results proved that local elections are beauty contests, not issues contests. Perhaps the issues matter more when a city is emerging from four years of crisis and controversy.

But things have been relatively peaceful in Annapolis since 1989. Those problems most likely to spark cries for change -- taxes, layoffs, service reductions -- haven't existed. As long as that was the case, voters were content not to trouble themselves with more abstract questions about the progressiveness of the current administration.

Some of the issues challengers raised -- crime being the major one -- are important to voters. Still, such concerns did not outweigh general contentment and Mr. Hopkins' old-fashioned appeal.

One Eastport Republican summed up the Hopkins vote when he said: "Al used to umpire my Little League baseball games. Taxes didn't go up, and nobody got laid off during that recession."

In the end, city voters just didn't want to be dragged kicking and screaming toward the 21st century. They like things the way they are because Al Hopkins tries to make things the way they used to be.

He keeps City Hall's engines plodding along at a slow, dependable pace.

He makes people feel secure.

He shouts, "Beat Army!" instead of giving a speech.

He's the mayor Annapolis wants.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Ann Arundel County.

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