Rising above mayoral field

Conaway hopes name boosts candidacy in 8-person city contest

`It's time for a woman'

July 05, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Register of Wills Mary W. Conaway has no problem distinguishing herself from the seven other mayoral candidates hoping to win September's Democratic primary.

She is woman. Hear her roar.

On drugs: "I believe there is a conspiracy. Black folks don't have planes to transport these drugs; we need to find the people that are bringing it in."

On cutting the city budget: "I'm sure that in all of the departments that there are people who don't do anything."

On campaign contributions: "I'm glad I'm not backed by the big money backers, because I can say no."

On her candidacy: "I've won more elections than anyone in this election. I think it's time for a woman, we've proven we are electable and that we can do it."

Serving her fifth four-year term, she is banking that her name recognition -- particularly among actively voting seniors -- will lift her over a crowded mayoral field and make her the victor in a race that political pundits say is up for grabs.

But the North Carolina native and daughter of a farmhand has failed in similar efforts to seek higher city office. She lost two bids to become comptroller and finished fifth in a field of 32 running for Congress in the 7th District in 1996. In none of the races did she spend more than $10,000.

In the only public voters poll on the mayor's race, conducted last month by Gonzales/Arscott Communications Inc. of Annapolis, Conaway garnered 4 percent of the vote; one out of five respondents was unfamiliar with her name.

But in an eight-person field in which the winner is expected to be elected with less than 40 percent of the vote, Conaway and her supporters warn that she should not be taken lightly.

Female voters

In last September's primary for Register of Wills, Conaway attracted 47,000 votes, equal to about 32 percent for the mayor's race if half of Baltimore's 290,000 voters turn out, as they did in 1995. Historically, women between ages 50 and 70 are key voters in the primary -- 55 percent of the turnout.

"She's going to do well," predicted state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV. "I think she's going to do a lot better than people think."

Conaway, 56, manages the little-known office with a $20 million budget and about 60 employees. She supervises the handling of estates and wills for deceased Baltimore residents, collects inheritance taxes, and serves as clerk to Baltimore's Orphans' Court.

While mayoral candidates such as Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, former Councilman Carl Stokes and Northeast Councilman Martin O'Malley are being labelled "front-runners," Conaway has been quietly and systematically touring the city, meeting with community groups.

Plenty of personality

Diminutive at 5 feet tall, she packs plenty of personality, showing up on the campaign trail wearing a plastic hard hat and carrying a broom, props she uses to hammer home her intent to "sweep this city clean."

She holds master's degrees in education and divinity and serves as an ordained United Methodist pastor at Cecil Memorial United Methodist Church in Annapolis, where none of the congregation leaves without giving Conaway a hug.

She pledges to restore police foot patrols to neighborhoods and place an officer in every four-square-block area. She wants to reactivate the volunteer auxiliary police force. And she vows to cut staffing in the city attorney's office by 20 percent, while also targeting managers in the city Public Works Department.

Conaway, a former teacher, would also work to bring Baltimore schools back under local control. Two weeks ago, she walked the picket line with teachers negotiating a new contract.

Most of all, Conaway says, she would give Baltimore an accessible mayor. Conaway laments the loss of the days when Mayor William Donald Schaefer could be spotted walking down the street talking with residents.

No bodyguards

"People want someone they can touch and really be concerned about their problems," said Conaway, who said she would get rid of mayoral bodyguards. "You may not be able to solve all their problems, but all people want is to be heard."

Conaway's husband, Frank M. Conaway, a former state legislator who became clerk of Baltimore Circuit Court last year, is running for City Council president. In addition to being her possible running mate, Frank M. Conaway also is his wife's biggest supporter, hoping to help her pull off the same kind of upset he scored in a similarly crowded clerk's field.

"None of the candidates are head and shoulders above the rest," Frank Conaway said. "I think voters are going to say, `It's time for a woman.' "

Pub Date: 7/05/99

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