High hopes, strong views propel fringe candidates

Relative unknowns, perennial gadflies want to be mayor

June 26, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Waiting at a recent West Baltimore church forum, Democratic mayoral candidate A. Robert Kaufman told of being arrested for trespassing while distributing leaflets outside Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

"That's nothing," countered Roberto Marsili, a Republican mayoral candidate from Little Italy. "Wait till you hear what they did to me."

Marsili then recounted how a circuit judge acquitted him in February of trying to run over a neighborhood rival with his car.

Meet two of Baltimore's alternative mayoral candidates. Five of them -- people who, political experts say and voter polls indicate, have little chance of becoming Baltimore's next elected leader -- have filed to run.

They all met the two qualifications necessary to seek the job: living in the city and paying a $150 filing fee.

Some, including Kaufman, have run for such offices as governor and president. Although their efforts are dismissed as though they were rowboats bobbing in the wake of million-dollar mayoral campaign ships, neither ridicule nor futility sways them from expressing their ideas.

"I'm an activist, and it's the only way I can air my views," said William Edward Roberts Sr., a 72-year-old West Baltimore community activist running on the slogan "Jobs Not Jails."

"If you have a commitment, you pick up what you can get and you work with it," Democrat Roberts said.

Marsili, 68, is City Hall's resident gadfly. Every week he challenges city housing and public works department spending, an issue he will take to city voters.

"I've always been taught that even if you don't win the fight, if you fight like hell, they'll respect you," Marsili, who operated a construction compa ny for 40 years, said of his candidacy.

Such independent campaigns have gained significant credibility since 1992, when Texas billionaire Ross Perot, the Reform Party presidential candidate, gained one of every five votes. In November, Jesse Ventura made political history by running as a Reform Party candidate for Minnesota governor and beating two politically connected candidates.

Frustration over choices

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University, attributes the large number of Baltimore alternative candidates to factors that include frustration over city leadership choices and disarray within the Baltimore Democratic Party.

But mostly, Crenson said, the little-known mayoral hopefuls crave attention.

"People like to see their names in the newspaper," he said. "They have an excuse to walk up to people in the street and tell them who they are."

Phillip A. Brown Jr., who runs a security business, says his impetus is that he cares for the city. The 44-year-old Northeast Baltimore Democratic activist is running for mayor as "the street man."

Republican hopefuls

"I talk to a lot of people who aren't satisfied," Brown said. "I'm a people person, and I care about people."

At least one of the alternative candidates is likely to appear on the November general election ballot as a Republican.

Only Marsili and Arthur W. Cuffie Jr., 66, of Bolton Hill have filed for the Republican primary as the July 6 filing deadline nears. Cuffie, a retired analyst for the Social Security Administration and National Institutes of Health, gained 16 percent of the Republican vote in the 1995 mayoral primary.

Democrats ahead

"I'm running for the people, and I want to bring the city together and restore Baltimore back to prominence," Cuffie said recently.

Republicans have had little political success in the city lately. The last to be elected mayor was liberal Republican Theodore R. McKeldin, 36 years ago. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 9-to-1 in the city.

After years on the alternative candidate circuit, Kaufman is making a push to become a serious mayoral contender this time with no incumbent in the race and no clear leader. The 68-year-old Walbrook Junction apartment complex owner has run for governor, U.S. Senate, city councilman and president, but has never gained more than one in 10 votes.

This time, he has secured financial backing from an area artist who has posted campaign signs on Kaufman's behalf on city buses. Kaufman, founder of the City Wide Coalition that hopes to start an auto insurance co-operative, also has held weekly news conferences.

`Something positive'

Kaufman's message is anything but mainstream. He wants to legalize prostitution, give drugs to addicts and grant voting rights to prisoners.

"I add something positive to the campaign," Kaufman said.

Others think the alternative candidates muddy the election process by taking time away from candidates who are more likely to end up leading the city.

Fraternal Order of Police President Gary McLhinney recently criticized Kaufman's call to legalize prostitution.

"It's a shame that all you have to do is pay $150 to file for the highest office in the city of Baltimore," said McLhinney, whose union is supporting City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III. "You should have to check off a box that says you have common sense."

Dialogue on solutions

Kaufman says he believes he can win the mayor's race but acknowledges that the greater goal is contributing to the dialogue on city solutions by offering alternatives.

"Ventura's whole popularity was, `Damn it, I'm not part of the establishment,' " Kaufman said. "I think his victory shows which way the wind is blowing."

When he ran for U.S. Senate and president, Kaufman was asked what he would do if elected.

"I'd immediately demand a recount," he said then. Now he's hoping to win.

Pub Date: 6/26/99

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