Mayoral candidates pumping out mottoes

Concrete strategies to improve Baltimore hard to find in forums

July 29, 1999|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

And the sound bites go on. And on.

With the mayoral primary seven weeks away, many of the 27 candidates in the race are trying to develop the kind of rhetorical flourishes they hope will separate them from the pack.

Yesterday, at the third mayoral forum in as many days -- held during Larry Young's morning show on radio station WOLB -- the 10 of 17 Democratic candidates who were present returned to what are quickly becoming catch phrases.

But the emphasis on memorable mottoes may leave some voters asking "Where's the beef?"

After yesterday's forum, Sylvia Newsome of WOL-AM, who served as one of three panelists, complained that only a few candidates offered concrete and specific proposals for the city's ills.

"I don't want people reading to me from a piece of paper," said Newsome, who had pressed the candidates for solutions to the city's blighted neighborhoods, which prompted several Democrats to speak about self-esteem. (Everyone did agree they're anti-rat.)

Candidates long have used debates and forums to yank the discussion back to their particular message, no matter what the question is. A. Robert Kaufman, for example, found numerous ways yesterday to hammer at City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and Northeast City Councilman Martin J. O'Malley for being part of the "oligarchy" -- a favorite phrase of Kaufman's -- that failed to press for car insurance reform.

For the first-timer, the technique is all new. By the second exposure to the candidates, it's deja vu all over again.

Kaufman's narrative history of his fight to lower city auto insurance is quickly becoming so familiar that it's akin to Ted Baxter intoning: "It all began at a 5,000-watt radio station in Fresno, Calif.," on the old "Mary Tyler Moore Show."

Not every candidate is a memorable public speaker. But certain speech patterns have begun to emerge.

O'Malley repeatedly asks voters if they are "hungry" -- for leadership, for better schools, for safer neighborhoods. He also seems obsessed with the city's corners. These may be emblematic of neighborhoods -- and therefore good -- or synonymous with the city's open-air drug markets, which he vows to close.

Bell's motto is: "One Baltimore. Back to basics, block by block."

Former city councilman and school board member Carl Stokes returns frequently to his opposition to "New York-style zero tolerance" to fight crime, although he sometimes varies this by calling it "New York-style zero-tolerance Gestapo."

Register of Wills Mary W. Conaway invokes the past and the future with her repeated calls for a "second renaissance" and her oft-stated desire to be "the mayor for the next millennium."

She likes to call herself the city's "cheerleader," a phrase also used by her husband, Clerk of the Circuit Court Frank M. Conaway, who's running for city council president and wants to be "drum major" to his wife's cheerleader.

Phillip A. Brown Jr., a perennial candidate, likes to talk about city leadership that has demonstrated "book sense, but no common sense."

Jessica June Davis -- who often prefaces her remarks with the seeming affirmation, "I am Jessica June Davis, the next mayor of Baltimore" -- quotes Shakespeare, but chooses one of his more obscure lines. "The people are the city," she has noted at her appearances, a line from "Coriolanus."

Then there is Charles A. Dugger, who is not given to repeating himself, but has shown a flair for literary allusions and self-deprecating humor. The longtime city schoolteacher has compared life in Baltimore to Kafka's "The Trial" and opined that developers belong in a special circle of hell in Dante's "Divine Comedy."

As for the mayor's race, Dugger has compared it to Baskin-Robbins and Howard Johnson, with enough flavors to suit everyone's taste.

Young will hold a forum for Republican mayoral candidates today.

Pub Date: 7/29/99

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