A little bit might go a long way in city race

Campaign: With a field of 27, Baltimore's mayoral race could hinge more on name recognition than on weighty issues.

July 11, 1999|By Gerard Shields

ISSUES, shmissues.

Though Baltimore is troubled by a high murder rate, high unemployment and high property taxes, the city's next mayor might not be the candidate who proposes the best solutions for these urban woes, some veteran politicians say.

With a 27-candidate field, the contest to become the city's 47th mayor is less likely to hinge on problem solving than on voter turnout, name recognition and mobilization of troops.

Even departing Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke believes that media coverage and the assembly line of candidate forums will have little impact on swaying voters as much as direct mail, radio ads and door-to-door candidate visits.

"This is going to be a retail campaign," said Schmoke, who is to step down in December after 12 years as mayor.

The ballot for the September 14 primary election includes 17 Democrats and seven Republicans. The three independent mayoral candidates are seeking petitions to get their names on the ballot in November's general election.

Because 9 of 10 Baltimore voters are Democrats, the winner of the city's Democratic primary is traditionally considered a shoo-in for the November election.

Some political observers maintain that with a low turnout, the Democratic primary could be won with only 40,000 votes.

Ask Frank M. Conaway if elections turn on issues. Last year, the former state delegate pulled an upset victory over eight other contenders in the Democratic primary race for city Clerk of Courts, winning with 22 percent of the vote. Conaway attributed the win to a newfound campaign tool: cable television bills.

While filling out his cable bill, Conaway noticed advertisements for various products. Conaway called the local cable company and asked if they would place a political advertisement in the monthly bills dispatched to 150,000 city homes.

The response to the ads shocked Conaway. Employing another trademark, get-out-the-vote strategy -- standing at heavily traveled intersections, waving to rush-hour motorists -- he found many drivers tooting their horns and giving him the thumbs up.

"We tried to figure it out," Conaway said of the motorist reaction. "And we figured out it was the cable bill."

But are city voters so robotic, so easily led, that they would cast their ballots for the candidate who has put his or her name in front of them most often?

If that's the case, then City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III stands to benefit the most. The 12-year council veteran walks into the primary with 94 percent name recognition among likely city voters, according to two independent polls. He also holds the coveted first position on the alphabetical ballot, crucial in a flooded field.

In addition, Bell received good marks from 36 percent of the respondents and only 6 percent negative reaction from voters polled in the only published survey, which was done by Gonzales/Arscott Communications Inc. of Annapolis.

"That's fairly rare for an incumbent," said the firm's Carol Arscott.

Bell's campaign strategy can best be described as political rope-a-dope. Shunning the political limelight, the 37-year-old West Baltimore councilman appears to be running a stealth campaign, hoping to avoid gaffes and other mistakes that could cost him votes.

Other leading candidates, such as former Second District City Councilman Carl Stokes, have been attempting to draw Bell into the open at public forums and possibly deal a knockout blow.

"His job is to avoid getting injured," Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University, said of Bell. "Everybody's going to be coming after him. He's the one with the target on his back."

Key methods of gaining name recognition are direct mail and radio spots, which cost money. Here again, Bell holds the advantage. Several fund-raisers have pumped cash into his campaign, enabling him to keep his name recognition high.

Before last Tuesday's filing deadline, some of the financial heavy hitters in city politics had kept their wallets closed. Apparently, they decided to sit on the sidelines after pledging early support for NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who removed his name from contention in May.

In 1995, Stokes lost to Bell in the Democratic primary race for council president. This time, Stokes hopes to shore up his mayoral candidacy by clearing a chief hurdle -- namely, convincing potential campaign donors that he's a winner.

Besides losing the council president's race four years ago, Stokes carries the burden of having lost races for the state Senate and the House of Delegates. During the past several weeks, Stokes has boasted about endorsements he has received from East Baltimore clergy and state delegates, in the hope of gaining credibility and convincing donors that he is their best bet.

For Stokes, every appearance is critical, handlers say. "We want to be in front of as many people as we can, talking," said Stokes campaign manager Cheryl Benton. "The motivated voter is the voter you touch by addressing the issue closest to them."

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