A bitter, but polite, race for mayor Frederick contest tests nonpartisan loyalties

Campaign 1997

November 03, 1997|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- In this city where the major political debates usually concern overly rough road concrete and streetlights that shine in historic townhouse windows, the contest for mayor has taken on a distinctly big-city flavor.

Voters will decide tomorrow between an incumbent Republican who says he is staying in office just to keep his opponent out and a challenger who became a Democrat just so she could run in this race.

In their way, both are local political titans: Mayor James S. Grimes, 57, a self-made millionaire who owns a $40 million truck dealership and leasing company; and Frances Baker, 69, president pro tem of the city's Board of Aldermen, whose husband, Joseph, is named for his grandfather, a city patriarch.

tTC Frederick, population 48,000 -- which boasts that it is Maryland's second-largest incorporated city, after Baltimore -- seems on the cusp between rural community and midsized city. Its veneer of small-town pleasantries seems to cover a genuine bitterness in the race for mayor.

"This is definitely a contentious fight," says Len Latkovski, a history professor at Hood College in Frederick who has been following the race. "It's one of the most unique races we've seen. There are all these different alliances being formed by all the different camps. Frederick used to be a sleepy town. Not anymore, and this is such a significant election."

Nearly everyone in town claims to be fiercely nonpartisan, but then they launch into diatribes about the political intrigue they say is everywhere. It's a race where the residents will display the poster of a candidate they call a friend, but then vote for the opponent, locals say.

The division crosses party lines, tugging old loyalties. Grimes is called the candidate of the old boy network by those who want to make Baker Frederick's first female mayor. But Baker's lineage gives her a network of her own.

At stake is four years of leadership in a city that faces unprecedented development, crowded schools, 6,000 building permits in the pipeline and a population expected to double by 2020.

The candidates have campaigned on similar platforms -- calling for managed growth, good city services and efficient government. But as they focus on how they'd handle the office, they emphasize how their opponent would mishandle or has mishandled it.

Baker says she switched parties to take on Grimes because he has bungled personnel matters, especially the recent resignation the director of the community arts center. The incident was widely seen as a debacle, in which the new director also left and asbestos was found in the building.

But Baker says she doesn't know all the details of the incident and wouldn't tell anyway. "I just don't treat people that way. I can't stand by and watch our chief executive acting in a manner I see as unacceptable."

Grimes says he's running to defeat Baker and that if a candidate with more experience had materialized, he would have stepped down after one term as he had planned. "She has no management experience," Grimes says. "Frederick is growing. A lot of complex decisions are coming up. It might be over her head. She's a wonderful person, though."

Grimes says many of the attacks on his management style are because he's running the government like the businessman he is.

Residents say the fight is being played out in local newspapers and in conversations on street corners and in coffee shops.

On lawns throughout the city, Grimes posters and Baker signs battle for space. And although the candidates are mostly running against each other, they swear their campaigns are not negative.

"I'm a positive person," Baker says.

"I'm a positive person," Grimes says.

"This has been a nasty race," says John Norman, 40, a Baker backer, as he stands outside Winchester Hall where a debate between aldermanic candidates is about to start. "It's nasty because you have the good old boys backing Jim Grimes. His supporters say we're slinging mud, but we're really just saying the truth."

Norman pauses, then continues: "But I'm a friend of Jim Grimes'. He's a good guy."

Shoes scuff the marble steps, and Norman turns around as Grimes appears. "Oh, hi, Jim. Speak of the devil." Grimes smiles.

A few days later at the Village Restaurant, a group of men gathers to sip coffee. This morning, talk turns to the election. All -- eight men say they are voting for Grimes.

"It's about business," says Chipper Hoff, chairman of F&M Bank. "Jim is better at that. Fran probably isn't the right person."

The others at the table nod, a few mumbling similar opinions. When asked about Baker, they all respond in unison: "She's a wonderful lady."

One adds: "Oh, no, we like her. She's done a lot for the community."

Party affiliation seems to have little to do with the way people vote in Frederick. Switching parties, as Baker did, is a time-honored tradition.

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