With Mfume out, Stokes basks in new attention

But he knows others will soon crowd the mayoral race

May 26, 1999|By Ivan Penn and Gerard Shields | Ivan Penn and Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

What a difference 24 hours can make.

Before NAACP President Kweisi Mfume's announcement Monday that he would not run for mayor, mayoral candidate Carl F. Stokes struggled to build the momentum needed to catapult him into the forefront of Baltimore's first mayor's race without an incumbent in 28 years.

Stokes' weekly news conferences drew few reporters. The former City Councilmember spent as much time pitching his plans to empty chairs as community members sitting in them.

But by midday yesterday, the phones at Stokes' Guilford Avenue campaign headquarters were ringing nonstop. Without a clear front-runner in the race, Stokes suddenly emerged as a strong contender in the race for the city's 47th mayor.

Some members of the Draft Mfume 2000 Committee wanted to know how they could join the former school board member's campaign team. Others called with encouragement or to pledge money.

"I'm losing my voice," Stokes, a Democrat, said with a little gasp. "We've gotten a lot of calls. We've even gotten some calls from some Republicans who say they just want good government."

The media also arrived in force. TV crews and newspaper reporters jostled to talk to a man who at the outset of the race was dubbed a loser because of failed campaigns for the General Assembly in 1994 and City Council president in 1995.

"I'll take advantage of it while it's hot," said Stokes, sitting in a simple campaign office with two desks, two computers and one telephone. "People are now going to hear my message."

Stokes knows that his position as the most well-known declared candidate will be extremely short lived.

Days to be exact.

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III is expected to announce his candidacy by week's end. Bell stands to become a slight front-runner because of his name recognition and position as the city's second highest elected leader.

Bell defeated Stokes in the city's 1995 council president's race. But Stokes' work on the campaign trail since Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced in December that he would step down is expected to give him more solid footing this time around.

Stokes has promised to cut the city's homicide rate by 50 percent, provide more funding for city neighborhoods, hire a city manager, add $25 million to the city schools budget annually and make Schmoke Cabinet members reapply for their jobs.

"He has a strategy to get things done," said Tanisha Beard, a 20-year-old nursing assistant from Cedonia who never hesitated to answer yesterday when asked whom she likes.

Name recognition

But strategy does not a mayor make. Longtime city politicians know that the key to winning the election -- especially with the absence of a celebrity name such as Mfume -- will be for candidates to raise the campaign donations needed to get their names and messages to residents.

"You cannot get your name out there without the money to get your advertisements out there," said former West Baltimore Councilwoman Vera Hall, who also was in the 1995 council president's race. "Carl knows he will need to raise the money and be prepared for Election Day."

Bell has already raised an estimated $400,000. Although Bell may be perceived as getting into the race late, he will step in with a big political chassis.

"Lawrence has a leg up because of his position," said city Real Estate Officer Anthony J. Ambridge, a former 13-year councilman. "Clearly, it's his race to lose."

The absence of Mfume in the race will also put more importance on forming coalitions. With Bell stepping down to run for mayor, his seat will be open with the early contenders being West Baltimore Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, Northwest Baltimore Councilman Martin O'Malley and Clerk of Courts Frank Conaway.

The key to the slates, however, could be which candidate can attract Comptroller Joan Pratt to join their ticket. Although the July 6 filing deadline is six weeks away, Pratt looks to run unopposed. And her ability to attract as many city votes in last year's state comptroller's race as the winner, former governor and Mayor William Donald Schaefer, will make her a big voter draw.

`Something different'

City residents said yesterday that they were not terribly interested in the race because they are frustrated with the choices. "The field is too limited," said 80-year-old Alonzo Harrison.

Others appeared disgusted that the city race has failed to attract more widespread interest among potential candidates. Several residents interviewed downtown yesterday took the position of Duane Jones, a 50-year-old Northwest Baltimore resident who said he was tired of the city being led by million-dollar Inner Harbor business owners.

"I will not be voting because I don't like any of the candidates," Jones said while waiting on Cathedral Street for a bus. "I don't want politics as usual, I want something different. And we're not getting anything different."

Augustus Farmer, 78, of West Baltimore said he will protest politics as usual by voting for City Wide Coalition candidate A. Robert Kaufman.

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