O'Malley aims to move city election beyond race

June 24, 1999|By Michael Olesker

OUT OF Martin O'Malley's mouth came the following phrase Tuesday morning: "the integrated and hopeful 3rd District." He said this right at the top, so everybody could notice his sentiments. Then he used this phrase: "working-class families of this city, black and white." He said this maybe 12 seconds later, in case anybody had already forgotten his first reference: It's a city of multiple colors.

He said these things standing on the sunlit corner of Harford Road and The Alameda, right by Clifton Park, and right by a sign originally designed to keep drug dealers away, which they naturally ignore, and he said it while announcing his run for mayor of Baltimore.

He thus becomes the major white candidate in this campaign, in a field with at least two prominent black candidates. And in his language, and in his mere entrance into the race, everyone is implicitly asked a question: Have we grown up in the past four years, and seen the destructiveness of racial politicking, and learned to trust those with the entire city's interests at heart, or will we once again vote on the basis of skin color?

Four years ago, we had Kurt L. Schmoke running against Mary Pat Clarke. It was an embarrassment of a campaign, and in many minds it redefined the public image of Schmoke. Here were two candidates well known to everybody in town, both of them products of the same great mid-century civil rights campaigns for racial fairness. And yet somehow, in one neighborhood after another, at the end of that miserable summer, the numbers looked like David Duke running against Louis Farrakhan.

In black Forest Park, Schmoke got 92 percent of the vote. In white Locust Point, Clarke got 96 percent. In black Cherry Hill, Schmoke got 90 percent. In white Hampden, Clarke got 91 percent. In black Rosemont and in Ashburton, Schmoke got 89 percent and 88 percent, respectively. In white Canton and Hamilton, Clarke got 88 percent and 90 percent.

Out of this depressing arithmetic, one bright spot emerged: a relationship at City Hall between Councilman O'Malley and council President Lawrence Bell. The high-profile friendship and political cooperation of these two young men were a nice interracial symbol for a city that needs such signs.

Now that relationship ends. Bell has been called the front-runner in this campaign, but on Monday night, O'Malley telephoned to inform him he was declaring his candidacy and changing all percentages.

"I'm sorry things didn't work out and we can't be together on this," O'Malley remembers saying.

"So am I," he remembers Bell replying. "And I hope it doesn't become divisive like four years ago."

"It doesn't have to be," O'Malley said. "This can be healthy for the city."

Still, some will point to the math. The city has about a 2-to-1 black voting majority, but O'Malley is the only prominent white candidate, while Bell and Carl Stokes might split a black vote -- and Bishop Robinson might yet splinter it more.

The natural question, then, is: Would O'Malley have entered if he were not white?

"Yes," he said Tuesday. He said it softly, as though the question were a little embarrassing. He looked around at the remains of the little crowd that had gathered for his announcement.

"I think it's a cop-out to say I shouldn't run because of race," he said. "This is about the politics of change and reform. That voice is missing from this campaign, and people want it."

He didn't elaborate, but people close to him did. During the months Bell put together his campaign, they say O'Malley felt cut off and frustrated. He sensed Bell making compromises with the current mayor, and with some who have surrounded this mayor, and it made him angry.

"This campaign can't be about politics as usual," the Rev. Johnny Golden was saying Tuesday, as he watched O'Malley shaking hands. Golden is pastor of New Unity Baptist Church.

"This mayor," he said, "has been in public office for 14 years, and he finally issues a paper about a vision for Baltimore. Fourteen years, and he finally gets a vision? This city is starving for a vision, and race will play an issue in how people perceive things, but I think we're ready to go beyond that."

"Oh, yes," added state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, "race will be an issue. It shouldn't be, but it is. I wish we were sophisticated enough to get beyond race, but somebody out there will create a backlash."

"This won't be like four years ago," said Marvin Briscoe, a schoolteacher who is the former president of the Hillen Road Improvement Association. "We had a black candidate. What did he do for us? We want to save the city, and it doesn't matter about race."

For what it's worth, the last three voices are African-American. In public this year, everybody talks like civics textbooks. Vote for the best candidate, they say. Vote for ideas and not race, they say. Four years after a sorrowful, racially divisive campaign, we'll see if people act in the privacy of a voting booth the same way they speak in public.

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