In mayoral race, look for viability, not perfection

July 25, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

BALTIMOREANS must choose from an array of flawed candidates campaigning for mayor this summer. It could be the worst group of contenders in the city's long history.

What an embarrassment. It's one thing for fringe candidates with police records to file, but quite another when some major contenders have dubious backgrounds, too.

One candidate, Register of Wills Mary Conaway, won't fess up to having played hooky for three years from her $75,000-a-year public job while attending graduate school in Washington.

Instead, she denies shortchanging city taxpayers. When asked to explain how she could have been in two places at once, Ms. Conaway claims divine intervention: "When you're dedicated to God, you can do anything."

A second mayoral candidate, Carl Stokes, a former councilman, failed to pay a speeding ticket, had his license suspended and yet continued driving. By the time he rectified matters, he was embroiled in another problem: He had falsely claimed to have graduated from Loyola College.

Money troubles

All this may be small potatoes next to front-runner Lawrence Bell's problems: He runs up big debts, then avoids paying them.

Mr. Bell had to be dunned twice in court by his condominium association for $12,000 in fees he owed. He bought a $27,000 Mustang convertible, but a year later the bank had to repossess the car because of nonpayment. Even then, the bank went to court to collect the balance owed by Mr. Bell.

Sadly, city Democrats will have to select one of these major candidates, or the other front-line campaigner, Councilman Martin O'Malley, on Sept. 14. At least Mr. O'Malley hasn't skirted any laws, lied about his credentials or gone to school on taxpayers' time.

Mr. O'Malley's problem is that he's a white running in a majority-black town. Some of Mr. Bell's boosters -- the same ones who engineered Mayor Kurt Schmoke's racially tinged re-election in 1995 -- are planning the same sort of polarizing campaign this time.

Mr. Stokes has the best chance of galvanizing support from the city's business and community leaders, but he's had trouble building the momentum necessary to overtake Mr. Bell.

Stokes' best shot

Mr. Stokes' slip-ups have hurt, but they're not fatal. His best hope may be to impress voters with his grasp of key issues.

Ms. Conaway is running on the basis of voter name-recognition from her four elections as register of wills. But she lacks a grasp of the issues and offers simplistic solutions to complex problems.

Mr. Bell, City Council president, hasn't done a bad job in that post, but many civic and political leaders question his intellect, maturity and work habits. Now add to that list his proclivity to avoid paying debts.

Imagine what he'd do if given a $1.8 billion budget to play with.

Mr. Bell has some key advantages. His name will be at the top of the ballot. He has a big lead in fund raising. He's cut deals with labor unions and with Mr. Schmoke's top henchmen who want to keep their jobs and influence. And he has the backing of West side political groups.

But he has already vowed vengeance against state legislators who oppose his candidacy; he shamelessly tried to discredit his own cousin, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, when he considered running for mayor; he's making promises that will ensure there will be no shake-ups at City Hall.

This is the city's best?

Where's the Talented Tenth?

Baltimore's decline is mirrored by the lack of talent in this election. The most powerful city politicians have better jobs in Washington (Rep. Ben Cardin, Rep. Elijah Cummings) or Annapolis (state Sen. Barbara Hoffman, Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings). Business leaders are turned off by the political process. No heavy hitter has ventured forth from civic, community or church groups. The mayor has failed to groom a successor or recruit a standout candidate.

It's a depressing situation.

Yet democracy is always a choice among imperfect solutions, a quest for the best -- not the perfect -- course of action.

Some Baltimoreans are throwing up their hands in despair. That's not a realistic option for those who care about the city. Voters must sift through this mediocre bunch and uncover the most viable contender -- imperfections and all.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 7/25/99

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