A Bishop with more than a prayer of becoming next mayor

June 20, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

WILL BISHOP Robinson pull "an Mfume"? Is the latest mayoral hopeful going to duck out before the July 6 filing deadline?

Don't count on it. By the end of this week, the former city police commissioner could be a declared candidate.

That would put another twist in a strange mayoral race. The city's premier politicians have refused to enter, leaving a cast of at best modestly appealing candidates. You'd never confuse any of them with major power brokers such as:

State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who decided that he doesn't have the stamina or enough knee cartilage left to pursue the job he loved more than any other in his distinguished career.

Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, who wants to play back-room kingmaker but refuses to give up his own very powerful appropriations chairmanship in Annapolis to seek the mayor's post himself.

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, who once hungered to be mayor of his home town. Not any more: The allure of Congress, with its perks, fat salary and ego gratification, has persuaded him to remain a federal officeholder.

Kweisi Mfume, the NAACP president, who bailed out even before he announced. After months of leading supporters to believe he wanted the job, Mr. Mfume reneged. He didn't want to relinquish his highly compensated role with the NAACP that allows him to hobnob with the rich, the powerful and the glamorous.

Enter Mr. Robinson, who has decided to forsake a high salary as a business development consultant for Lockheed Martin Corp. At 72, he's starting a new career -- as a politician.

He doesn't have a political base, organization or campaign treasury. And he has little time.

He's a career law-enforcement man: policeman, Baltimore police commissioner (1984-1987) and state public-safety secretary. Crime in Baltimore dropped while he was the city's top cop; legislators admire him for having run a disciplined and effective state prison and policing operation.

He's a solid administrator who learned much from serving under Governor and Mayor Schaefer, a recognized expert in motivating a large and lethargic bureaucracy.

He runs circles around the other candidates when it comes to management experience. That could be his main theme: "The man with the plan" to turn Baltimore's fortunes around.

Mr. Robinson gains an advantage in having the enthusiastic support of Team Schaefer, that group of longtime Schaefer admirers. They know how to run a citywide campaign and have access to lots of money.

Another big plus: He's the apparent choice of many Baltimore state legislators, who could put their political organizations behind him on Election Day.

Will that be enough? Mr. Robinson faces City Council President Lawrence Bell, former school board member Carl Stokes and a cast of lesser lights.

There's even the remote chance that City Councilman Martin O'Malley will file for mayor, hoping a white politician with a base in Northeast Baltimore can eke out a victory in a crowded field.

Mr. Bell has the most name recognition at this early stage. Mr. Stokes had hoped to capture the support of the business community and the city's black and white middle-class voters. But his chances may be doomed if Mr. Robinson enters the race.

Mr. Robinson would be more likely to win over business leaders and middle-class voters, especially those worried about crime.

Advertising and a sharply focused message could make the difference this year. Of all the candidates, Mr. Robinson is best positioned to amass a huge treasury for a media blitz. He's already mulling ways to craft a message that grabs public attention.

Still, Mr. Robinson starts out far behind. He's a political novice. His positions on most issues are unknown.

Yet if Mr. Robinson gains early endorsements from civic, business and political leaders, other candidates may drop out. To make that happen, he has to put together a staff of savvy advisers and start gaining public attention -- pronto.

It's one thing to want to be mayor, but it's quite another to master the political skills needed to win the job.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 6/20/99

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