Comeback City

Carl Stokes won't listen to skeptics. He says Baltimore can be better, will be better, when he's elected mayor. After all, he's been written off several times, too.

August 31, 1999

It is one of those strange, vague Baltimore summer days that wants to do everything at once. Raindrops are falling, even as rays of sunlight crack the sky, and a second wave of scudding black clouds gathers on the horizon.

Inside a plain brick building on 25th Street, Carl Stokes also is promising to do everything at once, dangling a vision of Baltimore as mouth-watering as the Danish pastries served at this regular meeting of the 25th Street Area Business Owners Association.

Just listen to him: The Baltimore of the next four years will be safer, cleaner, more efficient and more responsive. Every child will be in an after-school program, playing an instrument or taking lessons. Ballet, maybe art. Ministers will go door-to-door, performing bed checks at the homes of at-risk youths. The homicide rate will be halved, by using the so-called "Boston model."

"On the cusp" neighborhoods will be revitalized, six to 10 at a time. New neighborhoods will be built from the ground up, using models that include the kind of features for which people usually go to the suburbs -- cul de sacs and courtyards and community playgrounds.

And -- mirabile dictu -- the city will be responsive when citizens call to complain. The switchboard operator will be an intake person, someone who can solve your problem, not just pass the buck to a bureaucrat. Forty-eight hours later, 72 at the most, a city worker will call back and ask if you received the help you needed.

It's enough to make one wonder: What's exactly in that Danish?

"When you say that to me, I think you're a Baltimorean," Stokes will say later, good-naturedly and astutely, when a reporter expresses skepticism. "Because Baltimoreans tend to think things can't be done. If you'd traveled to New York, or Boston, you would know these things can be done, they have been done."

In this warm and friendly crowd, however, there is no skepticism, only hunger. It's such a juicy, tempting vision, the questions feel like the kind of softballs lobbed at that rotisserie salesman on cable, the one who really likes impaling that chicken.

What are you going to do about crime? More police on the street, Stokes says, fewer in cars. (This has nothing to do with the Boston model, but never mind.) What about the blocks of boarded-up houses? Some neighborhoods cannot be saved, Stokes says candidly, the first time he admits there's anything that can't be done.

But even here, it's only a matter of time before The Question comes up. Why did you lie about having a college degree, asks a woman, who hastens to assure him she will vote for him anyway. But she doesn't know what to say to her friends when they ask about this lapse.

Now, technically, Stokes didn't lie: His campaign literature contained an error, he let it go. He attended Loyola College as an English major, but he left two years short of graduation to go into business.

It's not the first time Stokes has been asked The Question, and it probably won't be the last. He is clearly prepared for it. He speaks slowly and carefully, trying to turn what has been one of his campaign's biggest liabilities into an asset.

"I made a mistake, and I must take responsibility," he says. "It's a reflection of how I will govern. There will be times as the mayor of the city, when we will make mistakes -- I will make mistakes. We have to acknowledge them, not duck, not pour good money after bad, say we're sorry.

"And then we need to move on."

Jimmy's Restaurant, 9 a.m.

Stokes, 49, has been moving on, and just plain moving, longer than anyone else in this mayor's race. He declared his candidacy on Dec. 8, 1998, before Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke had announced his intention not to run again.

Since then, he has tried to honor every invitation, attend every event, meet with every group that wants him.

"He wants to do everything," says Sam Redd, a friend and aide who has been along for every Stokes' campaign since his first unsuccessful bid for City Council in 1983.

The campaign's spokeswoman, Kelley Ray, says they sometimes catch Stokes sneaking a quick visit to events they've told him he's just too booked to attend.

This debate at Jimmy's restaurant is on the official schedule for the day, although Stokes' two closest rivals for the Democratic nomination, City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and Councilman Martin J. O'Malley, declined to attend.

Stokes doesn't mind, nor does it seem to bother him that only two voters stop by the table, or that one of his questioners is Roberto Marsili, a candidate for the Republican nomination. He's feeling expansive, predicting -- quite rightly, as it turns out -- that the next poll will show him out front, with Bell losing support.

Just a few weeks ago, Stokes' campaign looked to be in a tailspin, wounded not only by the Loyola College revelations, but by a similarly muddy story about his suspended driver's license.

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