Voters who meet, talk and eat decide local elections

September 13, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Here's some political advice.

Baltimore elections are really won or lost in churches and synagogues. And more to the point, the contests are won or lost in their basements and social halls.

The winning politicians know the dates of every crab feast, oyster roast, sour beef dinner, ham supper and bazaar.

They know the dates when the brotherhoods and sisterhoods meet.

They know the differences between the Knights of Columbus, the Miriam Lodge, the Order of Tents and the Prince Hall Masons. They know a communion breakfast from a Wescott Club meeting. They know when the big homecoming Sundays fall.

They know you don't advocate abortion on demand to the Legion of Mary or the Holy Name Society.

And the big vote-getters know just when to show up, to shake hands and kiss babies.

They know when to subscribe to a table of 10 at an important oyster roast.

They understand why it's a good idea to play plenty of quarters on the spinning wheels with all those little numbers painted on them.

All this has very little to do with religion and dogma. It has everything to do with social patterns. One of the city's prominent judges says he owes his office to a detailed knowledge of church-sponsored Bingo games. It's a simple political axiom: the God crowd votes.

These voters are not always aware of voting records and political philosophy. They do observe how well a would-be statesmen knows the social webs within a neighborhood. And in Baltimore, that often translates into membership in some religiously affiliated social club.

This doesn't mean these people will automatically be pious, devout or sanctimonious. It doesn't mean they know the words to the hymns by heart. Quite the contrary. They can be -- and often are -- profane, loud and earthy.

What they do share is a love of gathering. This type of person likes to eat, talk and meet. Often these sessions are with very old friends, the people who went to the same elementary and high schools.

And the gathering is never heavy or serious. It probably means some bus trips to the outlets in Reading, Pa., the amusements at Busch Gardens or a performance of "Phantom of the Opera" in New York. Just a good time.

The best vote-getters know how these organizations operate. A popular oyster roast, where tickets are at a premium, will generally get very little mainstream publicity. Maybe a line or two in a church bulletin is all that is required for a sellout.

Some of these events are so locally well patronized that you practically have to be born into a founding family to gain admission. Yet it becomes the mark of a seasoned campaigner to know how a neighborhood operates and to circle these dinners for undivided attention.

If a political office seeker can penetrate the event, circulate through the crowd, he or she can count on votes along with that inevitable platter of fried oysters.

These events are ideal places to spot political hopefuls trying to break into the great game of politics.

You can spot them by their earnest ways, short haircuts, backslapping and smiles. And while everyone else is returning to the buffet tables one more time, the junior statesmen are studiously working the crowd. They visit each table. They hand out personal cards. They gab. They act as if they like you.

This is political behavior before the official fund raisers and distribution of campaign literature.

Why bother with expensive printed material? People throw it away.

The oral tradition lives and thrives in Baltimore. Your reputation sinks or swims on what people say about you. And these unofficial neighborhood gatherings are potent conversation pits.

Many a politician who has had a nasty brush with the Internal Revenue Service, the court system or the vice squad has been first confronted by his peers at a religious social gathering.

In Baltimore, a political career is not necessarily made or --ed to bits by what a newspaper reports. But if word-of-mouth reports among neighbors are bad, a politician is dead meat.

The system works well.

The best politicians know when to show up at an event. The best neighborhood leaders know the juicy gossip on their elected officials. And, in the intimacy of the social hall, they talk. And talk some more. Then, come election day, they vote.

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