Gadfly dreams of sanity in city politics

January 19, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON THE RECENT night they honored A. Robert Kaufman for his contributions to civil rights, he strolled out of the ceremony and immediately got himself arrested -- in a civil rights dispute.

And he didn't even have to leave the premises. In one moment, Kaufman, 67, was hearing himself lauded at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for half a century of selfless civil rights work. A moment later, he was handing out leaflets on the sidewalk out front, and getting himself handcuffed and tossed into jail. The experience was not wasted. It gave Kaufman a few more things to talk about in his current campaign to become mayor of Baltimore.

"I thought the irony was lovely," Kaufman was saying yesterday, delicately balancing his time between his mayoral campaign and his criminal defense. "Here they were, arresting me for the very same reason they'd just gotten done honoring me: speaking out.

"I was just handing out leaflets. I was gonna do it in the lobby, but I thought, `Nah, that'd be inappropriate. It's their building. I'll just step outside.' I didn't expect them to say they own the pavement, too."

The leaflets detailed a civil rights lawsuit pending against Crown Central Petroleum, alleging the company discriminated against blacks and women in hiring and promotions throughout the South. The company denies the allegations. Kaufman, having played that small, nagging political voice of conscience for so many years, anticipated trouble -- but probably welcomed it, too.

It gives a little more attention to his mayoral campaign, which he's taking seriously enough to muse, not quite off-handedly, "You know, I could actually win this thing."

In a time of Jesse "The Body" Ventura, who's to say otherwise?

"When I first announced I was running," Kaufman says, "I said, `We don't expect to win.' But that was stupid. There's a swing away from business as usual. Jesse the Body's symptomatic. People are beginning to move on their disgust with the old-boy network of running things, of cynicism and dishonesty. Nothing is working, everything is worse."

That's the familiar Kaufmanesque kvetch. For half a century, he's taken unpopular stands against racial segregation, various American wars and imperialistic instincts, and capitalist excesses of all kinds.

For the past decade, he's been arguing for sanity in drug laws and insurance rates in the city. They're now part of his mayoral platform. They sound so sane that some of the great thinkers at City Hall find themselves agreeing with him. They don't actually do much about it, but they agree with him, and then gently send him on his way.

There's his drug abuse idea, for example.

"The medicine's worse than the disease," Kaufman says, meaning the endless so-called wars on drugs. "But legalizing it's just as bad. Our way is to keep it illegal to sell on the street but abandon this nonsense war on drugs. Let addicts go to a clinic, and get whatever poison they want. They'll have no reason to steal. Dealers will have nobody to shoot. There'll be no new generation of addicts to recruit."

Some of this sounds like the argument Mayor Schmoke first made more than a decade ago.

"Right," Kaufman says, "but he was shouted down and never had the guts to shout back. So we wind up with 90 percent of our felonies drug-related, and three-quarters of our shootings. And all we have to do is take the profit out of it to change everything."

He's not done. He wants a nonprofit insurance co-op for city drivers fed up with paying higher car insurance than county residents. He wants to clean out the school board and bring in representatives from parent organizations, the teachers union, students, principals, and maintenance staff -- "people involved in the schools." Also, he wants to cut the city payroll.

"Everybody knows the waste and inefficiency in city government," he says. "People who work for the city know it, but they don't want to talk about it. Everybody's afraid of layoffs and retaliation." He wants a combination of rewarding whistle-blowers with financial incentives, and more cooperation between City Hall and unions.

Also -- how's this for drama? -- he wants a progressive commuter tax.

"Most of the big money in the city is made by people who don't live in the city," Kaufman says. "Tax those folks. We're told Annapolis won't let us have a commuter tax. OK, then the city dis-incorporates. That means the state has to declare martial law, deputize police, integrate us with the surrounding counties. We could win this if we stick together."

Well, it's fascinating to dream. Kaufman's a dreamer seen by many as a pain in the neck -- but he's also been a nagging community conscience for a long time, speaking uncomfortable truths amid the dreaming.

Getting honored and arrested on the same night, for example -- it's two sides of the same coin. It's Kaufmanesque! But he thinks people's eyes are finally wide open enough to see both sides of that coin.

Pub Date: 1/19/99

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