Historically, candidates rise to the challenge

September 01, 1999

FOR ALMOST a half-century, Baltimore voters -- sometimes aided by political bosses -- have had a knack for picking just the mayor they needed: Republican or Democrat, colorful or cerebral, thoughtful or frenetic.

Of the nine municipal chiefs chosen in those years of change, most have arrived with the precise talents demanded by the political and social forces then in play. Their styles and approaches have varied sharply.

The public personality of Baltimore mayors has alternated, more or less regularly, between showmen and those with a less theatrical approach to leadership.

In some cases, the candidates perceived what was needed, and in others, the luck of the democratic process produced the right person or one who could adapt to a job increasingly fraught with do-or-die challenges.

On two or three occasions, mayors have found themselves unsuited to the work and, before the voters might have acted, moved on to other pursuits. More eager occupants seemed ever present.

The timely emergence of talent should be comforting to those who have found too little maturity and experience in this year's field. But history suggests that the 10th and last Baltimore mayor of the 20th century will be up to the job from the start, adapt to it and grow -- or leave before doing much damage.

The dawning of Baltimore's modern mayoralty may properly be set in mid-1943, when the Republican Theodore R. McKeldin unseated Howard W. Jackson, a Democrat who had served without distinction throughout the Depression and halfway through World War II.

A self-made and Baltimore-bred Republican, the flamboyant McKeldin came into office with a set of populist and progressive -- even radical -- ideas. He wanted to do away with restrictive covenants that kept blacks and Jews out of certain neighborhoods. He opened lines of communication with disenfranchised groups.

His first four-year term began to move Baltimore's mayoralty into a more activist posture in general -- and to give the city a reputation for producing colorful and even effective mayors.

He was followed by the irrepressible New Deal Democrat, Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., a man who dressed in spats, natty pocket hankies, pinky rings and a needling irreverence for the elites who had seen themselves as the real city fathers.

Known as Old Tommy after his son and namesake entered electoral politics, D'Alesandro rose from the ethnic soul of a city of immigrants.

His 12-year tenure was followed by the election of J. Harold Grady, who moved up from state's attorney in the so-called Three Gs for Good Government race of 1959 when led a ticket that included Philip H. Goodman, running for City Council president, and R. Walter Graham, the candidate for comptroller.

Mr. Grady defeated D'Alesandro in that race, which saw the last hurrah of James H. "Jack" Pollack, the last of the city's ruthless bosses. Pollack and D'Alesandro were bested by Grady and Irvin Kovens, then seen as something of a reformer. Everything is relative. Kovens went on to rule the back room of Maryland politics until the mid-1970s, when he was indicted for political corruption.

Mr. Grady left office after three years to become a judge. He was succeeded by Goodman, who ran for the office in his own right a year later but lost to McKeldin, who had returned to the city after two distinguished terms as governor.

McKeldin and Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, Young Tommy, took Baltimore through the turbulent 1960s. They were as enlightened as any white politicians in the United States then, virtually inviting the challenges that took other cities to the brink of insurrection, rioting and near-paralysis of government. Baltimore had its own incendiary upheaval after the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but it was somewhat less severe than the turmoil elsewhere.

Young Tommy was as thoughtful as his father had been passionate and as thoroughly committed to equal rights as McKeldin. But the times took their toll, and he walked away from an office he could have held for some time.

He was followed by William Donald Schaefer, who gave himself the lead in a drama of urban renaissance, who honored the history of McKeldin and Old Tommy D'Alesandro but took their outgoing style to a higher level in almost every way.

Mr. Schaefer had been a member of the City Council for 16 years -- and probably knew more about running the city when he took office than most mayors do when they leave. His sometimes outrageous style camouflaged his disciplined stewardship, one that maximized help from Washington, strong-armed private business into partnerships with government and struck a pragmatic deal with the citizenry: Pitch in and you'll have a ferocious advocate in City Hall.

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