Voter sign-up trend bears out old shoemaker's jaundiced view

THE POLITICAL GAME

August 17, 1994|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Sun Staff Writer

Clyde Mills didn't much care to make the acquaintance of state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski last week, when the gubernatorial aspirant walked across North Avenue, from Baltimore's west side to the east side.

In fact, the cranky 74-year-old shoemaker, who's kept shop on North Avenue west of Rosedale Street for 40 years, could have done without the hoopla altogether.

"I don't want to meet him. I don't know him and he don't know me," Mr. Mills said, raising his bushy eyebrows to accentuate the point.

Not that he has anything against Mr. Miedusiewski or the city Democrat's politics. The reaction would have been the same had the grip-and-grin visitor been Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke or President Clinton.

He just has no use for politicians.

"During election time, people come in here, shake your hand, and that's the last time you see them," he said. "People vote for them, but they forget about most of the people -- except those with the money."

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke's face registered a "Yikes!" when asked about the owner of the Scientific Shoe Repair and Gift Shop. "That guy really doesn't like politicians," said Ms. Clarke, who was along last week for the non-endorsement ride.

Bingo.

And he's not alone, if election board figures are indicative of voters' cynicism.

"I'm tired," Mr. Mills said. "I'm tired of my intelligence being underestimated . . . and not being represented."

Mr. Mills, a proud man who plies his trade daily, is certainly not some rabid malcontent -- but he is frustrated. He started out with the same American dream that many of his generation did.

Born in Spartanburg, S.C., he worked a farm with his family, picking cotton and using a mule to plow the fields. On the side, he learned the cobbler's trade. Then came the Depression and World War II.

He enlisted in the Army and served in North Africa and Europe nearly five years before his discharge in 1945. He left the Army with a little money in his pocket and the dream of carving out a piece of capitalist turf for himself.

But his plans for opening a small shop were stepped on by segregation and discrimination -- in the same country for which he fought. He settled in Baltimore, but couldn't open a shop downtown, which forced him to hang out a shingle on Pennsylvania Avenue, before moving to North Avenue.

His shop now is in a once-thriving commercial strip of a neighborhood that is just hanging on in its battle against drugs and crime, joblessness and despair.

Nevertheless, Mr. Mills has done all right. He owns a home in Ashburton, not too far from Mayor Schmoke, and even manages to play golf on his days off.

As he looks up and down North Avenue, shaking his head in resignation, he makes it clear he has lost faith in the system.

"This country been lucky," he said. "The American people take everything for granted -- too much for granted." High on Mr. Mills' list of those taking too much for granted are elected officials.

"Politicians are in the most dangerous racket in the world," he said. "As long as a man can use and control you, nothing's going to change. And what controls this country is money. The politicians . . . they're going to do what they're told to do."

At least on paper, the voters are supposed to be doing the telling.

But the voter turnout for this year's primary election -- despite contested Democratic and Republican races for governor -- may be as grim as the 1990 primary, when just 28 percent of the city's registered voters went to the polls.

Barbara E. Jackson, the Baltimore elections board administrator, predicted an "optimistic" 30 percent turnout of the 330,000 registered city voters for the Sept. 13 primary election.

"But if yesterday's voter registration -- the last day of registration -- is any indication of the turnout, I don't think we'll see that," Ms. Jackson said. "It's the lowest I've seen in the 26 1/2 years I've been here."

Ms. Jackson said just 3,000 new registrations were received Monday, compared with the 10,000 to 15,000 new registrations the election board usually sees on the registration deadline. In 1992, for instance, the board saw a record 35,000 new registrations dumped on the counter the last day.

The city elections chief said she believes that registering to vote has become "too easy," that "people have become too comfortable."

But she conceded that the problem is more pervasive than that.

"I hear it all the time: 'Why vote? My vote doesn't matter,' " Ms. Jackson said. "But it does. It does matter."

Clyde Mills is not persuaded. He gave up voting 20 years ago.

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