Can mayoral hopefuls avoid temptation of race as issue?

August 03, 1999|By Michael Olesker

THE CRITICS WISH us to unwrite what has already been written. Lawrence Bell never had trouble paying his bills, and Carl Stokes never dropped out of college. And so on. As though unwriting it would un-do the acts themselves. As though none of this connects with the business of running the city of Baltimore.

"You got any secrets you want to get off your chest?" Martin O'Malley was asked the other day.

"No," he said, laughing. "I pay my bills on time, and I have my college diploma."

He sounded like a man delighted to be standing out of the line of fire. In the coverage of this summer's campaign for mayor, he is one who has not yet been embarrassed by public disclosure of an untidy past, finessing serious truths, or any of the bizarre litany of stories attached to the slate of contenders.

Yesterday, demonstrators on Calvert Street protested this newspaper's coverage of the mayoral race, attaching racial motives to the disclosures about black candidates and asking why anyone should care how the future mayor of Baltimore might have conducted a life while imagining no one was paying attention.

"It's good to report these things, but then let them go," said Eric Easton, who is running for a 4th District City Council seat. Around him, some demonstrators handed out leaflets, one calling for a boycott of The Sun, another calling Martin O'Malley a "hypocrite," because while campaigning against crime, he has also made a living as a defense attorney.

The other day, O'Malley was asked about public safety. Instinctively, he outlined what he called his "five core reforms" for cutting street crime in the city. He did this with the assurance of one who has said the words so many times that they're probably carried on his answering service.

This is the thing that happens in any political race. It doesn't diminish the message, or the honest intentions of the candidate, but you understand that they've been saying the same words over many weeks, until they're delivered by rote: Hear a question, latch onto a phrase, plug in the appropriate response.

It's not just O'Malley. To sit down with Carl Stokes is to find yourself pretty impressed. This guy has some fire in his belly and considerable anger about a couple of generations of kids' lives wasted in the city's public schools. You walk away from him thinking this guy's pretty good.

To sit down with Lawrence Bell is also impressive. He's made city government his life. He's earnest, and he's thought things through. You walk away thinking he's young, but he's immersed himself in the material.

But you also realize that these are the faces that politicians show the world. Their words, inevitably, are calculated. What's going on behind the choreography? What are they like when they think nobody's watching? For this, too, is the life of any politician: making moves that affect thousands of citizen's lives, when those citizens are too busy leading their own lives to examine the running of government.

How do politicians do when forced to be spontaneous? Where are the clues that hint of leadership qualities to come? Last week, at a breakfast meeting of the President's Roundtable, a group of black business leaders in the city, Lawrence Bell told those assembled that critical media coverage of him should also be considered a knock at his supporters in the group.

Come again? In private conversations with Bell -- and with Stokes and O'Malley, too -- they've all strenuously denounced the racially divisive elements of the mayoral campaign of four years ago. Are those words truthful, or merely a thin veneer stripped away at the first sign of pressure?

At yesterday's rally outside The Sun, demonstrators chanted, "Sun is unfair to blacks." Among the marchers was Larry Gibson, architect of Kurt L. Schmoke's campaigns.

One of the most appealing City Hall friendships of recent years was the Bell-O'Malley alliance. In an administration that seemed to have no instinct for feel-good public gestures of racial cooperation, the Bell-O'Malley relationship said, some of us still understand the need to cross racial lines.

O'Malley's candidacy doesn't change that. But it's made plenty of people raise questions about him jumping to take advantage of the racial arithmetic of one major white candidate against two major black candidates.

When O'Malley announced, Bell was genuinely glum. Part of this was political, but he indicated part was personal, a friend thinking he'd been crossed. O'Malley says the friendship has been troubled for the last 18 months.

No matter. There are those ready to choose up sides by race. There are those announcing that this newspaper has a racial agenda for reporting uncomfortable truths. And there are those who have condemned the racial divisiveness of four years ago and fail to notice such community self-destructiveness starting all over again.

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