DePazzo raises valid questions in distasteful way

October 06, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Louis L. DePazzo touches on something important, but sullies his argument with the language of the gutter. When he says government shouldn't force-feed poor people into stable communities, he hits nerve endings. When he talks of poor people needing to take baths, he insults everyone who hears him.

DePazzo made his loudest remarks immediately before the primary election, blasting a program called Moving to Opportunity, which would relocate 285 inner-city residents to various neighborhoods all around the metro area. He implied they'd all head for his particular area, Dundalk and Essex.

"These people," DePazzo declared, "need to be taught to take baths and not to steal." Was he slandering all poor people? "If I were mayor of Baltimore City," he said, "believe me, I would be derelict in my duty if I did not send out the worst of the worst."

The response? One week later, DePazzo won his Baltimore County Council race with 77 percent of the vote and became a champion of some who share his concerns, if not necessarily his language. In a time of high crime, who doesn't worry about neighborhood changes? When the crime is heaviest in the inner city, some of whose residents may now move to your community, the concerns are heightened.

At such times, reasonable human beings talk to their government leaders, who listen and act accordingly. Reasonable residents might say, "We've worked hard to make this a safe community and don't want it to change." Reasonable leaders might say, "This is 285 families being spread among communities consisting of hundreds of thousands of families, and we think the good qualities of the many will enhance the lives of the few."

But, at this time, Lou DePazzo reached for mean language, and easy cliches, instead of the words of diplomacy. And that's the precise reason he's become a lightning rod for criticism, and -- let's not be coy -- for cheers.

But now, to hear DePazzo tell it, What's all the fuss? He claims his words are no different than the language used by those officials backing the MTO program. Are these people racists, he asks. Aren't they saying what he's saying?

He asked these questions yesterday, and he asked them Monday night, in a show taped for Baltimore County educational television. The man he was asking on Monday is Robert Gajdys, executive director of the nonprofit Community Assistance Network, which does counseling work for MTO.

"The suggestion that I'm a racist is wrong," DePazzo said yesterday. "I'm not talking about race, I'm talking about a concern they'll send people who need basic principles of how to live properly. And the housing people are saying the same things I'm saying."

DePazzo's reference is the original MTO program application, sent to Washington a year ago. On page 86 of the application, he points out, the following is said:

"The counselors also will provide guidance to the families on how to maintain their units. Training on light maintenance, how to clean a floor, taking care of the yard, putting out the garbage, and so on, will be covered."

DePazzo says this is precisely what he was saying; Gajdys says DePazzo knows better.

"If you're telling me I need to bathe every day and learn how not to steal, that presumes I don't know personal hygiene and it presumes that I steal and have to be deprogrammed," Gajdys said yesterday.

"It's offensive, it's libelous and slanderous. What we said was, 'If you're moving your family from the inner city, you've never had an apartment in Columbia, and we want you to understand responsibilities such as putting out the garbage on Wednesday by 7:30 a.m. because that's when the garbage truck comes by, or cleaning the sidewalk or cutting the grass.'

"All those things are not normally done in inner city low-income [high-rises]. I see a significant difference between what's said there, and what Mr. DePazzo said."

DePazzo says otherwise. He says working-class people are being victimized, and those in plusher neighborhoods simply turn their backs because they don't feel the threat. That's worth talking about. He says people are too quick to cry racism. That's worth talking about, too.

But DePazzo's the one who sullied the debate. He took the pain of poverty and race and reached for a handy slander. That's language that reduces all of us.

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