Bite-size answers to big questions

Commentary: Sixty-second responses didn't give mayoral candidates much time, but a few unguarded moments may have given voters something to think about.

August 31, 1999|By Michael Olesker | Michael Olesker,SUN COLUMNIST

Well, I got my man.

After watching last night's televised debate among Carl Stokes, Martin O'Malley and Lawrence Bell, it's clear to me who should be the next mayor of Baltimore.

Unfortunately, Kweisi Mfume isn't running.

He only moderated last night's debate -- but such is his stature that each candidate, eager to show his intimate relationship with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leader who walked away from his own sure shot at City Hall, declared, "Well, Kweisi," at the beginning of each answer with such lock-step response that viewers might have imagined Mfume held the only vote in town.

He doesn't -- but he had all the good questions last night.

To Martin O'Malley: Did you enter the race because you calculated the racial arithmetic and spotted an opening?

To Lawrence Bell: Was it an act of responsibility to take $4,300 in campaign contributions and buy new clothes with it?

To Carl Stokes: Can we trust a man to run the city who would lie about getting a college degree?

The answers comprise what are known in the trade as sound bites, little chunks that the TV stations can show, and the folks in barbershops and shopping malls can chew over in the coming days.

They don't tell us the answers about schools, or the homicide rate. But maybe we don't expect those, anyway, in a debate that promises "in-depth" answers but then gives the candidates only one-minute response times.

Try explaining a way out of the city's housing disaster in 60 seconds. Try explaining the intricacies of education reform in 60 seconds.

It can't be done. And so the discerning viewer learns to reach for pieces of a puzzle: composure under pressure, a sense of fire in the belly, some notion that it's an adult human being talking about this city, and not a graduate student who's prepped for his orals.

In that sense, the highlight of the night was Carl Stokes, momentarily unwrapped, finding a word coming out of his mouth previously unheard in the modern history of televised political debate:

Bullcrap, he said.

He said this, and mouths all over town surely flapped open. He said it, and even as your sensitivities reeled a little, you thought: How do you like this? Something unplanned came out of a candidate's mouth, a response that moved beyond the rhetoric repeated so endlessly this summer that each candidates' answering service could phone it in.

Stokes was talking about internal strife in the Police Department, and the divisions of race that get in the way of police business.

"I will not allow internal strife," he said. Never mind how he would stop it, he was off on a roll, he was off on a little verbal bender, he was letting go the way no mayor of this city has let go in a dozen years, and so you sat there and embraced the sheer passion of the moment.

"It's all wrong," he said, meaning racial divisions. And then came that word, off of street corners, out of barroom arguments, but also from the pit of a man's stomach. After 12 years, it felt nice to hear. We're a city that's lost its composure, except in the very place where political power is held.

There, the homicide rate reaches almost one a day -- and the mayor never raises his voice. There, the kids come out of schools and can't compute any numbers that don't involve kilos -- and the mayor never shows any anger. There, the vacant homes rise into the thousands and thousands -- and there's never a sign of mayoral rage over neighborhoods dying all over town.

We know these things are happening, and we know these candidates for mayor all have words to explain how they'll turn them around. But who can do it in a minute?

And so we look for our moments, and for signs of genuine passion, and we mull them over in the coming weeks:

O'Malley on getting into the race to exploit the racial arithmetic: "In eight years in the council, I never backed off a tough fight," he said. Then, looking at Mfume, he added, "I was hoping someone of your stature would get in. When that didn't happen, I asked [state Sen.] Joan Carter Conway, but I won't back down, even because of the color of my skin."

A reasonable answer for a man with limited time. More expansively, he might have talked about healthy coalitions he's built in the 3rd District that are a sign of genuine racial cooperation.

Bell, on the $4,300 wardrobe:

"A legitimate campaign expense," he called it, and quickly changed the subject.

He might have trouble explaining that "legitimacy," and a sense of adult perspective, to people backing his candidacy who don't have that much money a year to spend on family needs, much less a single day at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.

Stokes, on the college degree:

"Inexcusable," he said. "I apologize."

It helps. It's a little something to remember in the final two weeks before Election Day, when we look at the three leading contenders and think about another guy on the television set last night named Mfume, who might have been mayor but walked away.

Pub Date: 8/31/99

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