A matter of black and white

March 17, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

CALL IT hip-hop politics. When and if it becomes necessary to replace Jacqueline McLean as city comptroller, candidates to succeed her will show their true colors.

Filling the billet has more to do with next year's slate-making than it does with such silly criteria as competence, integrity or honesty.

Those may be the least important qualifications for the city's third-highest office.

In the short view, all six pretenders to the office are white males -- City Council members Nicholas D'Adamo, D-1st, Anthony Ambridge, D-2nd, Wilbur "Bill" Cunningham and Mike Curran, D-3rd, Joseph DiBlasi, D-6th, and former Councilman Jody Landers, who ran for comptroller and lost to Ms. McLean in 1991.

In the long view, Mayor Kurt Schmoke wants a white running mate for comptroller next year in a strategic design that will allow him to add to his ebony-and-ivory ticket a black candidate for City Council president. That position will be vacated when Mary Pat Clarke challenges Mr. Schmoke for the mayor's job.

So the contest for mayor could really begin in the City Council chambers within weeks. Ms. McLean is scheduled to be arraigned next Tuesday.

The City Council is empowered to choose Ms. McLean's successor, and the choice will involve the determination of Mr. Schmoke to win the candidate of his liking -- and the competing will of Ms. Clarke to deny any advantage to the mayor.

The council is not obliged to choose a comptroller from among its members. But under the unwritten rules of the road, it's all but assured that outsiders need not apply.

The message through the ethers seems to be that of the six white males, Mr. Schmoke has settled on Mr. DiBlasi, a political ally and stalwart of the Stonewall Democratic Club in South Baltimore's kudzu country.

Mr. Schmoke apparently is going after the "bunky" vote of working-class whites. The Stonewall or ganization has 19 affiliated clubs across the city's southern underbelly in just those 6th District neighborhoods where Mr. Schmoke needs political help to offset Ms. Clarke's challenge.

Although the 6th District has a sizable black population in the Cherry Hill area, blacks first elected one of their own to the council only in 1991, after decades of fighting the dominant white political machine.

It's important to remember, too, that in 1991 Ms. Clarke pulled more votes citywide than Mr. Schmoke.

For her part, Ms. Clarke is said to be less concerned about the comptroller's slot than about having a black running mate for City Council president. She is still undecided about who she wants.

So far, only City Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, has announced plans to run for council president. It's unclear whether City Council Vice President Vera Hall, D-5th, who is also state Democratic Party chair, will run for re-election in 1995. Ms. Hall, however, has indicated an interest in running for council president if she decides to remain in public office.

In the maneuvering to reap maximum political leverage from the selection of Ms. McLean's successor, Mr. Schmoke, as mayor, has many advantages.

First, there are about 2,500 patronage jobs the mayor can bestow on the constituents of cooperative council members. There is also the asphalt brigade he can dispatch to fill potholes in deserving neighborhoods and the lawn mower platoon he can launch in the summer.

Finally, Mr. Schmoke has about $700,000 in campaign pixie dust to sprinkle on the campaigns of council members who support his choice for comptroller.

Ms. Clarke will have to try to make up in strong ties to community organizations and years of tireless one-on-one campaigning for what she lacks in giveaways and disposable campaign funds.

Thus with Ms. McLean's future in public life uncertain at this point, the backstage maneuvering over her job has far more to do with the politics of race than with matters of governance. It all boils down to a matter of black and white.

Frank A. DeFilippo's expertise is state politics. He writes from Owings Mills.

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