Stokes poised for mayoral run

Former councilman focuses on education, crime, taxes and jobs

February 11, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

As kids growing up in Latrobe Homes public housing, Carl Stokes and Melvin Tuggle made a pact that one of them someday would become Baltimore's mayor.

Now, more than 30 years later, Stokes will officially begin trying to make that pledge come true when he files this week as a candidate in Baltimore's mayoral race.

The 48-year-old former city councilman and school board member is the first to announce his candidacy, organize and begin meeting with residents to share his vision for the city.

With Tuggle, a minister and head of Clergy United for Renewal in East Baltimore, by his side, Stokes is confident he will be able to bridge the city's fractious east and west sides by basing his campaign on one word: outrage.

"When people ask me what disappointed me most in my experience as an elected official, I don't say lost elections, I don't say legislation that wasn't passed," Stokes said. "I say the citizens of Baltimore are not outraged by the lack of education in city schools and murder in their streets."

Last month, Stokes began the first of 99 planned neighborhood meetings that he is calling "community conversations." The forums are designed to listen to residents' worries and draft a platform targeting the four areas of city government Stokes views as critical to healing Baltimore's damaged reputation: education, crime, taxes and jobs.

"I want to be mayor of this city because I want to say, `I'm not living like this anymore,' " Stokes said.

Despite unsuccessful bids for council president in 1995 and state Senate in 1994, Stokes is viewed by political veterans as a formidable mayoral candidate -- bright, articulate, an outspoken consensus-builder with biracial support. The former clothing store owner believes he can raise the $1 million necessary to compete in the city's first mayoral race in 28 years without an incumbent.

"Carl is hard-working and honest," said state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat and former Stokes opponent. "He's developed a vision of how this city should be run, and that is important to me."

Tuggle summed it up another way: "People are tired, and we've been urging Carl to run for years."

Whether Stokes can win the race is another matter.

Few would dispute that Stokes has the common touch to be a big-city mayor. Having grown up in public housing, the son of a factory assembly-line worker and union shop steward, Stokes attended St. Francis Xavier parochial school and Loyola High School, and was one of the first blacks to graduate from Loyola College.

First political race

Armed with an English degree and a smooth, whispery delivery, Stokes took the polish he developed working through college as a salesman at the Every Man's Shop in Mondawmin Mall -- which he eventually owned -- into the political arena in 1983. He ran for a City Council seat in the 2nd District, saying he did not recognize 18 of the 20 candidates competing to represent his East Baltimore neighborhood.

Stokes finished fifth -- the first of five races he has lost during his political career -- but returned to capture a council seat in 1987, bumping McFadden, who defeated Stokes to gain the Senate seat in 1994.

During Stokes' eight years on the council, the divorced father of two earned a reputation for being outspoken and passionate about city schools. As chairman of the education committee, he opposed the city's decision to hire a private company, Education Alternatives Inc., to handle nine troubled city schools in 1992. Two years later, the city fired the company for failing to improve the schools.

Stokes also helped redraw council districts during his term to give blacks more political punch.

In 1995, he ran for council president, pledging to reduce the city property tax rate. He finished last in a race that included three council colleagues. Stokes blamed the basement finish on the split between the city's black churches on the east and west sides, a division he hopes to overcome this time.

Polls from the council president's race showed Stokes with an edge that could help him in his mayoral bid if the field is crowded: biracial appeal and the support of close to 20 percent of black and white voters.

"Carl has a lot of optimism about himself and his abilities, and it's probably well-placed," said Herbert Smith, a Western Maryland College political science professor. "He has a good idea of where he wants to take Baltimore."

Stokes spent the past 18 months on the city school board before stepping down to run for mayor. He works at Mid-Atlantic Health Care.

If any doubt clouds Stokes' mayoral candidacy, it is the question of whether he is tough enough to make the hard decisions necessary to be a big-city mayor. Former council colleagues have accused Stokes of trying to play both sides of the fence on issues.

When the council voted on a bill to extend health benefits to the gay partners of city employees in 1993, Stokes walked off the council floor to not offend opposing supporters in the gay rights and ministerial constituencies.

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