White candidates run as minorities in city

Kaufman among those trying to appeal to black majority

June 20, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Campaign signs on the sides of Baltimore buses are boasting the Rev. Martin Luther King's familiar civil rights motto: "They will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

The twist, however, is that the signs support white mayoral candidate A. Robert Kaufman. Four years after a racially divisive mayoral race, white citywide candidates such as Kaufman find themselves running as the minority.

African-American voters hold a 63 percent to 37 percent edge over white voters in the city, an advantage exemplified by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's trouncing of his 1995 white opponent, Mary Pat Clarke.

Yet, even Schmoke acknowledges that a return to a white Baltimore mayor looks possible in the first mayoral race without an incumbent in 28 years.

If the city's black vote is fractured by being spread over numerous African-American contenders, the odds of a white winner in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary rise.

"That's a real possibility in Baltimore," said the Rev. Douglas Miles, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, the city's largest group of black ministers. "I think it's always in the back of people's minds."

A growing number of majority-black U.S. cities in the past three years have elected white mayors. Voters frustrated with violent crime, unemployment, poor schools and drug-addicted neighborhoods are abandoning racial solidarity to choose the candidates they believe most likely hold the most experience to get the job done.

Black voters in Gary, Ind., which is 90 percent black, recently re-elected Scott King, the first white mayor in 30 years. Oakland, Calif., where a black has been mayor since 1977, recently chose former California Gov. Jerry Brown as its mayor.

With a crowded field, Schmoke contends that his successor could win the Baltimore race with as little as 40 percent of the vote.

Survey results

In addition to Kaufman, white Democratic mayoral candidates being discussed include state Comptroller and former mayor and Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Northeast Baltimore Councilman Martin O'Malley. Schaefer, the city's last white mayor, who served from 1971 to 1987, recently topped a poll of 411 city voters asked who they would support if the race were held that day.

"If you have enough strong black candidates in the race, a white guy can come right up the middle," said Gene Raynor, former director of the city and state election bureaus.

The poll by Gonzales/Arscott Communication Inc. of Annapolis, however, included strong African-American contenders and some who are considering running. That field will likely narrow by the filing deadline, July 6.

The three declared African-American politicians seeking to succeed Schmoke are City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, former East Baltimore Councilman Carl F. Stokes and Register of Wills Mary W. Conaway. Former city Police Commissioner Bishop L. Robinson is also considering a bid. Neighborhood activists Phillip A. Brown Jr. and William Edward Roberts Sr. have also filed.

If only three strong black contenders remain in the race, a white candidate hoping to win 40 percent of the vote would face a larger hurdle.

"White, middle-class voters in Baltimore are quite accustomed to voting for African-American mayoral candidates," said Herb C. Smith, a Western Maryland College political science professor. "And the black vote in Baltimore would have to be badly fragmented."

Schaefer said last week he will not run and believes that Baltimore is two elections away from being politically comfortable enough to elect a white mayor again.

Yet that doesn't mean that white candidates such as Kaufman and O'Malley won't try this time.

Candidate's strategy

Kaufman said he hoped to tap into black civil rights consciousness with the bus ads after becoming disappointed with his unsuccessful 1995 run for City Council. Kaufman, who is well-known in the city's civil rights community, failed to win one black precinct.

"Politically, I'm as black as anybody in this town who has stood up for the rights of black people," Kaufman said. "To be discriminated against by the community I dedicated my life to disturbed me."

Yet unlike Gary and Oakland, which have had decades of black city leadership, Baltimore elected Schmoke its first black mayor 12 years ago. Schmoke's victory came almost 100 years after the city elected its first black city councilman, Harry S. Cummings in 1890.

Assessing odds

Black Baltimore voters won't be willing to give up the mayor's office after such a short reign, observers such as Schaefer and Smith contend.

Because nine of 10 Baltimore voters are Democrats, the primary winner traditionally becomes mayor. Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor, said the possibility of a white candidate winning the primary race could spur an independent African-American candidate to try to block the primary winner in the November general election.

Independents must declare by July 6 and submit 2,900 voter signatures by Aug. 2. Crenson agrees that with Schmoke the city's first elected black mayor, Baltimore voters will be less likely to replace him with a white candidate.

"For every racial and ethnic group, it takes a certain amount of time for them to develop a sense of political self-confidence," Crenson said.

"It may happen here, but I think it's going to be some time."

Pub Date: 6/20/99

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