The unpredictable mayor's race

August 15, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

FOUR weeks ago, Martin O'Malley was an afterthought in this year's mayoral election in Baltimore. City Council President Lawrence Bell sat comfortably in the front-runner's position.

A pollster declared in July that it was Mr. Bell's race to lose. He may be doing just that.

Since then, the fortunes of Mr. O'Malley have been rising like a rocket; Mr. Bell's poll numbers have been sinking like a rock. The two now are in a statistical dead heat.

Still, the uncertainty of Baltimore voters is so great that a month from today, approaching the Sept. 14 election, a third candidate, Carl Stokes, could supplant both of them. It's that kind of unpredictable year.

Mr. Bell rose to prominence in this race because he was the best known of those who filed. But he has stumbled repeatedly.

His earlier 16-point lead in the polls has evaporated.

Important political leaders rebuffed his entreaties in favor of Mr. Stokes or Mr. O'Malley. Questions swirl about Mr. Bell's campaign tactics, his personal financial difficulties and his lack of a dynamic and detailed agenda.

Mr. O'Malley, a two-term city councilman from Northeast Baltimore, has been the chief beneficiary so far. He's got a clear message. He's articulate. He's a superb campaign organizer. Money and political support are flowing into his headquarters.

He's on a roll, trying to avoid the negative side issues being tossed his way like battlefield grenades. He continues to talk about legitimate campaign topics, especially his prime focus -- reducing the city's crime rate.

Mr. Stokes' campaign, meanwhile, never gained the momentum the candidate expected would start building after the July filing deadline. His deceptive effort to claim a degree from Loyola College (he never graduated) eroded his financial support. It still troubles many undecided voters. He wasn't helped by the recent resignation of his campaign director, either.

But he's showing signs of new life with a string of important endorsements that could provide voters with solid reasons for taking another look at Carl Stokes.

Comprehensive views

He's got the most comprehensive issues papers of any candidate. He has the broadest life experiences, too, in business (clothing store owner and HMO executive) and in government (city council and school board).

In such an uncertain political environment, voters in the end may lean toward the most mature candidate, which appears to be the 49-year-old Mr. Stokes, who is 12 years older than Mr. Bell and 13 years older than Mr. O'Malley.

But there's still a long way to go in this campaign.

Has Mr. O'Malley, like Mr. Bell before him, peaked too soon?

Will Mr. Bell's free-fall continue? Or will he steady his campaign and pick up some of that lost ground by stressing his four-year record as council president?

Will Mr. Stokes gain more endorsements and much-needed financial backing?

It's entirely possible, for instance, that Mr. Bell won't recover from his stumbles and that voters will begin to see Mr. Stokes as the best consensus candidate.

Or that voters will increasingly view Mr. O'Malley as the most capable candidate, regardless of skin color.

Polls have shown that voters want competency and energy in the mayor's office.

The ineffective Schmoke administration has left them eager for a mayor who will shake up city government, make it more responsive to citizens, and give Baltimoreans hope that better days lie ahead.

It's "the vision thing," as a former president (George Bush) once called it.

Baltimore won't fall apart under any of these three mayoral hopefuls. Theyall promise to make major changes.

But only Mr. Stokes and Mr. O'Malley have presented the kind of high-energy, coherent blueprint that voters seem to be seeking. They have far more detailed responses on how to fix city problems than does Mr. Bell.

Yet the election, sadly, could turn on the question of race and racism.

Is enough of the city's black majority willing to entrust City Hall to a white candidate such as Mr. O'Malley?

Will black-power advocates implement an "anybody but O'Malley" strategy to prevent a white candidate from winning?

Will the white minority vote pretty much as a unit for the white candidate, Mr. O'Malley? Or will the white vote be split among the three top contenders? Will Mr. O'Malley make sufficient inroads among black voters?

Will the black vote be splintered among Mr. Bell, Mr. Stokes and Register of Wills Mary Conaway? Will this give Mr. O'Malley a key advantage?

Any of these scenarios could occur.

There is also the chance that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke might get involved in the campaign, perhaps with a pivotal endorsement in the final week.

Kweisi Mfume, the NAACP president who nearly entered as a candidate, suddenly has reappeared at campaign gatherings. Will he endorse a contender? That, too, could have a significant impact.

Voters are looking for direction. They are seeking guidance. None of these candidates gives citizens the comfort level of a William Donald Schaefer or a Mfume. None is a totally known commodity.

The election is very much in doubt.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page director.

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