Battle already won reignites in mayoral race

July 28, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

TWO CANDIDATES in Baltimore's mayoral race have fought the same battles, walked the same streets together (along Park Heights Avenue one night), advocated zero tolerance to fight crime and gone to the mats together with the same mayor.

But when it comes to the mayor's race, they face a major difference not of their choosing: race. One -- City Council President Lawrence Bell -- is black. The other -- 3rd District City Councilman Martin O'Malley -- is white. There's this nasty rumor going around town that O'Malley's lack of melanin is a problem with some folks.

In fact, the rumor mill has it that some blacks have advocated that one of the black forerunners -- Bell or Carl Stokes -- should have dropped out before the deadline so that the black vote wouldn't be divided and thus prevent -- horror of horrors -- a white guy being elected mayor of Baltimore.

Just when this African-American angst about a white occupying the mayor's office began is hard to pinpoint. William Donald Schaefer -- whom no one is going to mistake for a black guy -- was elected to four terms as mayor. In three elections he had considerable black support.

It must have started in the 1995 election, when Mary Pat Clarke challenged incumbent Mayor Kurt Schmoke in a campaign rife with racial overtones. When the '95 election was done, blacks had voted overwhelmingly for Schmoke to have a third term and put black candidates in the offices of City Council president and comptroller.

O'Malley disdained this history when he filed to run for mayor. Standing outside Union Baptist Church a couple of weeks ago in West Baltimore -- a Bell stronghold -- he reflected on the rumor mill that said some oppose him not for his platform, not for his ideas, but because he's white. O'Malley pooh-poohed the notion. There may be black politicians thinking that way, O'Malley said, but not black voters.

"I've tried for eight years to reach out to people across this city," O'Malley said. "Politicians always fight the old battles."

The battle in this case is the old black power struggle that started in the 1960s. Then the African-American Zeitgeist held that blacks should pool their votes, vote for black candidates when- ever they could and consolidate their political power. In Baltimore -- with its black mayor, black City Council president, black comptroller, black schools superintendent and black housing authority chief -- that battle has clearly been won. Those blacks who fear the advent of a white mayor should ask themselves why they continue to fight the battle instead of declaring victory. Perhaps a quote from Sugar Ray Robinson -- the great welterweight and middleweight boxing champion considered the sport's best ever "pound for pound" -- is appropriate.

After beating Carmen Basilio in 1958 to win the middleweight championship a record fifth time, a reporter told Sugar Ray that Basilio said he could have gone another 15 rounds.

"He wouldn't have went 'em with me," Sugar Ray shot back. But if he had the mind-set of some black Baltimoreans circa 1999, he would have climbed right back into the ring to wage a battle he had already won.

"He's still got to govern," a local activist said of a potential O'Malley mayoralty as we engaged in an impromptu chat on Calvert Street this week. "He's got to deal with state legislators from the city who are black and a black City Council."

That's a man who's thinking clearly. But Larry Young -- deposed from the state Senate last year but reborn as a talk-show host on WOLB -- has heard others who aren't thinking as clearly.

"There are those who say O'Malley is another Ellen Sauerbrey," Young said yesterday. "That's not true. There are those who say he's a redneck. That's not true. He's a moderate to progressive councilperson who's represented an integrated district. If the black community doesn't unite behind a black candidate, O'Malley's your next mayor."

Can you imagine thinking so muddled that some Baltimore blacks would actually fret that O'Malley is "another Ellen Sauerbrey"? They're clearly still buying into the nonsense that Gov. Parris Glendening engaged in last fall, portraying Sauerbrey as a racist. The fact that three leading black Democrats in the state said she isn't and cautioned that it's Glendening who can't be trusted seems not to have fazed them.

But if those who hold to such nonsense believe O'Malley is "another Ellen Sauerbrey" -- and that's a compliment, not an insult -- they had best get used to seeing him. Young believes that if the election were held today, O'Malley would win.

Pub Date: 07/28/99

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