Color fades from race for mayor

Voters, endorsements cross racial lines in search of city's savior

September 03, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Well, now they've done it. The three main candidates in the mayor's race answered questions about race head-on in a televised debate the other night.

The verdict? No big deal.

In contrast to the racially charged mayor's race of 1995, issues of black and white this year seem secondary to education and crime, housing and economic development.

Officials and organizations have bestowed an uncommon number of cross-racial political endorsements, mostly from blacks to Martin O'Malley and whites to Carl Stokes. Polls show voters are less likely to cast their ballots along racial lines than they did in 1995.

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday incorrectly identified poll results for the city's mayoral candidates. In the Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications Poll released two weeks ago, Carl Stokes won the support of 32 percent of voters, Martin O'Malley 30 percent and Lawrence A. Bell III 20 percent. The firm has ended its polling for this election. The Sun regrets the error.

Observers see several possible reasons for this shift: a trio of front-runners, two black, one white, who have barred much of the typical black vs. white rhetoric; heightened concern about all that ails the city; and disappointment in Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, an African-American who many thought would solve the city's woes.

Though a considerable number of die-hard, race-based voters remain, many seem to be saying that they want someone -- no matter what color -- who can turn Baltimore around.

"I don't care what color a person is, as long as they get something done in this city," said Myra Brooks, a black Rosemont resident who voted for Schmoke in 1995 and now supports O'Malley.

"I'd leave the city if I could afford it," she said, blaming mushrooming drugs and crime near her home.

Edward R. K. Hargadon, a white attorney from Charles Village who supports Stokes, acknowledged that race will be a factor, but not as overtly as in the past. "I'm not naive enough not to say that predominantly white areas might support a white candidate and predominantly black areas support black candidates, but I think it's moving in the right direction. I don't see the kind of polarization happening in this race that we've seen in the past."

But it has not been a colorblind campaign.

Yesterday, Stokes released a radio ad that features his grandmother urging blacks to vote for him to "make sure we don't lose everything we've gained."

A prominent city minister, the Rev. Douglas I. Miles of Koinonia Baptist Church, said a successful mayoral bid by O'Malley would devastate Baltimore. Miles and others view O'Malley's relatively late entry into the race as political opportunism, designed to capitalize on a split black vote.

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III took the same tack in Monday's television debate, accusing O'Malley of entering the race to benefit from the expected split. Earlier last month, Bell urged a largely black crowd at Druid Hill Park to vote for someone who "looks like you."

Last week, copies of a letter by unidentified writers circulated in Guilford, Charles Village and other mostly white neighborhoods urging residents to vote for City Councilman O'Malley because he is white.

O'Malley says he tried to get others -- including NAACP President Kweisi Mfume and Sen. Joan Carter Conway -- to enter the race. Days after Conway decided not to run, O'Malley said, he declared his candidacy "despite the fact that I knew I'd be called a racist."

As Baltimore Afro-American columnist Jonathan Ward wrote last week, "[I]f you look beyond these few isolated remarks, what you see is that surprisingly little else in the way of inflammatory racial rhetoric has been issued this campaign season, and that may be some of the most encouraging news to come out of this town in a very long time."

Signs of change

One of the first signs of changing racial politics in Baltimore came when a committee to draft Mfume to run for mayor released a roster of supporters in May that was heavily white.

Last month, Conway, an African-American who has focused on strengthening the black community, joined a host of white state officials in endorsing O'Malley.

At the time, she worried that the move would make her a "target" -- but that hasn't been the case. Several other black politicians endorsed O'Malley, as did the Service Employees International Union, a mostly black union with a black president.

Sen. Clarence W. Blount, who endorsed Stokes, called for unity among racial groups.

White state Dels. James W. Campbell and Maggie L. McIntosh, both Baltimore Democrats, endorsed Stokes, as has The Sun, an institution many minorities view as white.

In Charles Village, which Stokes represented as a city councilman, a group of mostly white activists has for weeks held informal gatherings to rally residents around his candidacy. Some meetings that were supposed to draw a handful of residents have attracted overflow crowds, said organizer Hargadon, who supported Schmoke in the last election.

Nonetheless, an opinion poll late last month showed that 63 percent of black voters support Stokes or Bell, and more than half of whites back O'Malley, according to Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications, an independent polling firm in Annapolis.

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