No clear front-runner for Baltimore mayor

Scramble: City voters must sort through more than two dozen contenders in search of a leader.

July 08, 1999

BALTIMORE VOTERS have two months to find out which candidate in a 27-person field has the wit and courage to lead their city into the 21st century.

Much-maligned by those who wanted someone else to run, the field is official, and voters must decide who is up to the daunting chore of managing a billion-dollar budget and dealing with the everyday problems of a city with potential as well as serious problems.

The thicket of contenders demands an even more diligent review of qualifications and positions on issues. The campaign will be a short one, covering months when many are vacationing or distracted by other concerns.

Some prognosticators have conferred front-runner status on Council President Lawrence A. Bell III because he has won citywide election and for the procedural reason that his name will be at the top of the primary ballot.

He has earned no such status.

Having occupied a high-profile position for 3 1/2 years, Mr. Bell might have become a prohibitive favorite. But it's reasonable to question whether he has demonstrated sufficient energy or determination to grow.

His ballot position will give him an advantage -- if the voter is too distracted to find the candidate he or she really wants. Mr. Bell's opponents must find ways to direct supporters. With a last name beginning with S, Carl Stokes, for example, will be last among the 17 Democrats. Watch for clever signs from his team: "Stokes: The last shall be first."

At a recent public forum, six candidates who had filed before Tuesday's deadline performed well -- knowledgeably and with passion. Expectations had been driven low by disparaging assessments of the field, offered by those who were anxious to recruit NAACP President Kweisi Mfume into the race.

Having failed in that push, those elected officials and civic leaders must join the rest of the city in picking the best man or woman from among those who have thrown their hats in the ring.

Voters are likely to find that no more than four or five candidates in this field merit serious consideration. But, based on the New Democratic Club forum, the contenders are eager to debate the issues of crime, economic development and public education. A large and involved audience contributed thoughtful, well-framed questions. More such exchanges are needed.

Some say Baltimore is on the brink of oblivion -- or a second renaissance. Which course it takes will depend significantly on who is chosen to guide it over the next four years.

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