Changing By Staying The Same

September 17, 1995|By C. FRASER SMITH

LaTanya Bailey Jones voted last Tuesday for change -- and for the incumbent, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

She is not altogether pleased with his leadership, but she could not imagine voting for his opponent. The continuing promise of Mr. Schmoke's presence as a black elected official was enough for her.

"I'm part of the black middle class that doesn't want to give up the hope that black leadership of the '70s and '80s will have answers for the problems of the '90s. I decided that if Kurt Schmoke gets a message from this election, that may be all we need," she said.

Just in front of her at the Barclay Elementary School Tuesday evening, 29-year-old Claire E. Acey, who is white, also voted for change, but she picked the challenger, Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

"I'd like to see the city become what it's capable of becoming," said Ms. Acey, who lives in the 3000 block of N. Calvert St. "I like Mayor Schmoke a lot, so it was a difficult decision for me to make. What swayed me was the conclusion that after eight years we needed change."

Even after eight years, though, from the African-American viewpoint, Mr. Schmoke was and is change. History remains heavy insulation from faults. In many parts of the city, voting seemed to track racial makeup: With a population that is 63 percent black, Baltimore gave its black mayor a 60 percent to 40 percent victory. One observer suggested the results looked more like a census than an election.

But more than color was involved in decision-making, as the two Charles Village voters illustrate and as numerous interviews showed outside polling places on Election Day. Race was an undeniably persuasive qualification. But there were striking exceptions to that rule:

* Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III won the Democratic Party nomination for City Council president, winning substantial support in largely white areas, including Northeast Baltimore, where he struck an alliance with Councilman Martin O'Malley.

"We bucked the racial tide. If this had been a year of purely racial voting," Mr. O'Malley said, "Bell would not have won. People have always said it's harder to get white people to cross over and vote for blacks, so we succeeded with the harder end of the salt and pepper shaker."

Mr. Bell's white opponent, 6th District Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, had begun the campaign by baldly asserting he would court white votes only, leaving his opponents to splinter the black vote.

* Though he appeared to invite white voters to support Mrs. Clarke, Mayor Schmoke won significant support in some white precincts.

Just before the election, Larry S. Gibson, the mayor's campaign strategist said: "People underestimated the intelligence of Baltimoreans. "The mayor will do better with white voters than predicted. . . ."

One comparison is illuminating: In the Ashburton neighborhood where Mr. Schmoke lives, turnout was 67 percent, with the mayor getting 88 percent of the votes. In Tuscany-Canterbury, where Mrs. Clarke lives, the turnout was 63 percent, with 77 percent going her way.

* And in the race for comptroller, state Sen. Julian L. "Jack" Lapides, who is white, ran well ahead of Mrs. Clarke, taking more than 46 percent of the vote. Save for the tremendous turnout and its boost for his opponent, Joan Pratt, Mr. Lapides might well have won.

Finally, as the two voters in Charles Village suggest, the process of decision-making in the minds of Baltimore voters was not simply a matter of color.

Both young women said they were concerned about the city's future, anxious to see more opportunity and fewer obstacles to advancement of the poor -- and perplexed by the detached leadership of a mayor they admired.

Admiration for Clarke

Even Ms. Jones saw things to like in Mrs. Clarke.

"Mary Pat has that spark," she said.

Conversely, Mr. Schmoke seems curiously lacking in the sort of "charisma" that works on a mass level, Ms. Jones said -- a striking reality that belies his manifold surface charms.

At the same time, she thought, Mrs. Clarke had "form but no substance," while Mr. Schmoke has "substance but no form."

"Maybe he went to England and lost his charisma," she said of the mayor, whose famous resume includes not only Harvard and Yale but a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University. Her co-workers wondered if the young mayor had not grown weary in the job.

After so many years of exclusion from the political process, after so much struggle for voting rights and economic opportunity, African-American voters may be excused for having patience with African-American leaders, particularly when they come, as Mr. Schmoke did, with so much potential.

"I haven't voted in 10 years," said an older black man on his way into a polling place in Hamilton, "but too many people died to make this possible."

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