Candidates a troubled assortment

Political clubs' fall blamed for poor field of mayoral hopefuls

6 have arrest records

Similar trend is being observed in other big U.S. cities

July 25, 1999|By Gerard Shields and Ivan Penn | Gerard Shields and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

When it comes to mayoral races, Baltimore's 27-candidate contest can best be described as a demolition derby.

Six mayoral candidates entered the race with arrest records. One was thrown in jail two weeks ago on an outstanding burglary warrant. A second is wanted by police on a theft charge. Three have filed for bankruptcy, and one is mending his campaign after falsely claiming a college degree.

The front-runner? He spent the week trying to explain a pattern of personal finance woes that included repossession of his car.

Why has the race to become leader of the nation's 16th-largest city attracted so many troubled candidates? Matthew A. Crenson thinks he knows.

The Johns Hopkins University political science professor blames the woeful mayoral field on the disintegration of big-city political organizations, namely the fading neighborhood Democratic clubs.

As in most U.S. cities, Baltimore's political clubs sprouted at the turn of the century, vehicles for Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants to gain a political voice in their new city.

Yet as the next century dawns, many club leaders have died or moved to the suburbs, making the days of trading favors for candidate endorsements in smoky basements a fond memory.

Contributing to the erosion are government ethics reforms that reduce the amount of patronage jobs that candidates can provide, weakening the enticement to join a neighborhood political system that once served to winnow the city's mayoral field.

"There certainly is no shortage of intelligent people in the city and probably no shortage of people without police records," said Crenson, who is writing a book on the demise of city political organizations in the United States. "Absent is a party organization that sifts through the fields of candidates. That selection process is missing not only in Baltimore politics but in all city politics."

Take Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love went through a bruising spring primary in which six candidates -- five of them Democrats -- spent $15 million slamming one another before victors emerged.

In Baltimore, 23 of the mayoral candidates are considered novices, political long shots with no government experience.

Their inclusion in the city's first mayoral race without an incumbent in 28 years has resulted in a cry for the city to establish more stringent criteria for mayoral candidates.

In Baltimore, a resident for at least a year merely pays a $150 filing fee to become a candidate.

"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 Fraternal Order of Police union President Gary McLhinney.

"You should have to check off a box that says you have common sense," he said.

Tougher standards

Baltimore Election Director Barbara E. Jackson agrees that tougher standards for mayoral candidates should be considered.

Like many others, Jackson was stunned recently when she learned that police arrested a mayoral candidate on an outstanding burglary warrant after a police officer recognized her during a televised interview.

"People complain to us about the candidates, but we don't have the authority to do background checks. That's not our job," Jackson said. "And who's to say in a field with 27 candidates that she couldn't win?"

Crenson opposes further restrictions on mayoral candidates as a hindrance to democracy.

This year, the state reduced the city residency law for mayoral candidates to six months in an attempt to draft NAACP President Kweisi Mfume into the race. Mfume declined to run.

"It may exclude some people we want," Crenson said of tougher candidate standards. "What we need is not more rules; what we need is more organization."

Some groups are trying to fill the void of the fading political clubs. State politicians, led by House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, began recruiting mayoral candidates as soon as Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced that he would step down in December.

Rawlings led the push to draft Mfume and talked to several other potential candidates while calling the forming mayoral field "frightening." With a quarter of the city's $1.8 billion budget coming from the state, legislators such as Rawlings feel that they have a bigger stake in the outcome of the city race.

In addition to Mfume, Rawlings considered Rep. Elijah E. Cummings; state public safety Secretary Stuart O. Simms; William L. Jews, the chief executive of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland; developer Theo Rodgers; and Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

None was interested. Rawlings was criticized by some for playing kingmaker. Yet with each misstep by mayoral candidates, Rawlings' effort seems visionary.

`Best choices possible'

"In a true democracy, any citizen ought to be able to file for public office," Rawlings said. "I spent my energy trying to get the voters the best choices possible."

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