In mayoral race, organization, not money, may prove key

August 29, 1999|By BARRY RASCOVAR

MONEY doesn't win elections, but it helps make you a viable candidate.

The $904,000 (and counting) that City Council President Lawrence Bell has raised in his campaign for mayor turned him into the early favorite. Though his poll numbers are plunging, Mr. Bell's treasury lets him continue his TV advertising. That should keep him in the hunt.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bell's former ally on the City Council, Martin O'Malley, has convinced some major campaign contributors that he has a real shot at the city's top job. Funds are rolling in, which is why he started his TV ad blitz this past week, far earlier than originally planned.

Former school board member Carl Stokes has announced he'll raise $100,000 by early September. That's not much. It won't let him match the media drives of his two rivals. Of the three, he has the least amount of cash on hand.

That could hurt. He is in a statistical dead heat with Mr. O'Malley. Mr. Stokes needs to get his name, his face and his message into Baltimore living rooms.

Still, the past two weeks have galvanized Mr. Stokes' bid. Several major endorsements give him the look of a winner. The expected embrace of outgoing Mayor Kurt Schmoke could prove pivotal with undecided African-Americans.

Yet controversy continues to dog Mr. Stokes. First it was his lying about his college credentials and driving on a revoked driver's license. Now it is a previous federal tax lien. This raises credibility questions in some voters' minds.

His fortunes, though, are rising just as Mr. Bell's are sinking. Voters don't like candidates associated with "dirty tricks." They don't like candidates who use campaign funds to treat themselves to fancy New York wardrobes. A giant campaign war chest alone won't buy Mr. Bell this election.

That will come as a crushing blow to his long list of contributors -- overwhelmingly folks who do business with the city, who want to retain the status quo and see the City Council president as most likely to keep the current crew running the show.

Saving union jobs

Nearly all of the city's labor unions gave heavily to Mr. Bell because they want a mayor who won't cut jobs, will give workers big raises and won't try to privatize government services. He's their man.

Other key contributors to Mr. Bell are paving and demolition contractors, builders, engineers, architects and lawyers who want to keep getting lots of work from the city.

Much of this cash was contributed last year or early this year, when Mr. Bell looked like a winner. The council president could have difficulty coming up with more funds to bolster his efforts now that his luster has faded.

Still, don't count him out. Those TV ads could persuade voters to take another look at Mr. Bell.

In previous campaigns, Mr. Stokes has proved a weak finisher. But this time his support crosses racial and age barriers in all parts of the city.

It's Mr. O'Malley, however, who may be the best-positioned. The most recent poll puts him just 2 points behind Mr. Stokes (with a 4-point margin of error). He's running better than expected among black voters. He is a skilled campaign organizer.

It could come down to which of the candidates' supporters do the best job of getting out the vote. Mr. O'Malley, for instance, is backed by influential state legislators. But those lawmakers aren't running for re-election this year. Will they still go all-out to secure a big O'Malley turnout on Election Day?

Will Mr. Stokes' supporters in the city's ministerial alliance mount a coordinated effort to assure a heavy turnout for him on Sept. 14?

The Generation-X vote

Will Mr. Bell's youthful legions show up to vote (younger voters are the least likely to exercise this privilege) and energize Bell backers in crucial west-side neighborhoods? Will city labor unions spearhead a get-out-the-vote drive for Mr. Bell?

Money will keep Mr. Bell in this race to the end. It will give Mr. O'Malley the luxury of more TV advertising and a more extensive final push. And it will let Mr. Stokes get on TV to counter-balance, somewhat, the ad blitzes of his rivals.

Money won't settle this contest, though. It could come down to which candidate mounts the best operation in the final weeks, and which one emerges with the clearest message to voters during televised debates. It remains a very unsettled contest.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 8/29/99

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