The Campaign Business

Teacher and former entrepreneur Carl Adair says experience counts. That's why the Republican candidate hopes voters will elect him mayor of a city where Democrats traditionally rule.

September 09, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

This is the second of two profiles of the leading candidates for mayor in Baltimore's Sept. 14 Republican primary

Talk about shopping for votes. Needing some, Carl Adair heads to the supermarket.

Adair, a Republican running for mayor, is shaking hands outside the Stop, Shop & Save at Mondawmin Mall. Actually, he's standing in the parcel pickup lane, where Johnny Dow is loading groceries into the trunk of his car -- and complaining about the state of public affairs in Baltimore.

"I'm at a point where I don't even feel like voting. Nobody seems to make any difference," says Dow, a 49-year-old mechanic from West Baltimore. Then, looking up from the trunk and into Adair's face, Dow asks, "Where you been all this time?"

"Been in the business community," Adair says. "I'm a different breed than what you've got out there."

Seems Adair is not only shopping, he's selling. A veteran of several unsuccessful runs for office as a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic town, he's selling his candidacy -- and, for him, that means selling a life story that begins on a truck farm in segregation-era Virginia, that wends through Baltimore's public schools and decades of business ownership.

"Once you find out from whence I came," he tells another voter, "I know you'll switch over to me."

Ask Carl Adair what he'd do about Baltimore's crime problem, and he says he'd crack down on drug dealers and encourage the police commissioner to press on with programs that have helped cut the crime rate. Ask him about the city's troubled school system, and he says it's up to the state, and not the mayor, to "fix them up," although he does call for disruptive students to be placed in crisis classrooms.

When the subject of real estate taxes comes up at a candidates forum, he tells voters, "I believe we are going to have to stop taking money out of people's pockets." But he offers few specifics for his proposed tax cut.

And while other candidates worry about the city's declining population, Adair volunteers an opposing opinion.

"You can quote me on this: If we can keep a base around 625 [thousand citizens] in this town, it will be a good population for Baltimore City," he says in a recent interview. "We don't need to be crowded. If we can keep a population of 625, 650 thousand, and get a good tax base, we'll be all right."

Democrats and Republicans alike may say the city is in a crisis state. But Adair says conditions are not so dire. He tells voters: "Why do you think the big hotels are being built downtown? Because there is no money in Baltimore? Don't fool yourself. Baltimore City is better than you think."

Perhaps Carl M. Adair has seen too many struggles in his 65 years to find the current conditions to be as bad as described. When he talks of wanting to be mayor, he talks of his past.

He talks of owning a chain of gas stations at a time when black businesses struggled for financing. And he talks of being the only full-time black teacher in a city junior high school, of rising to become a college dean and a member of government commissions.

These days, he teaches English to special-needs students at West Baltimore's Edmondson Westside Senior High School. He's also chairman of the board of trustees at Douglas Memorial Community Church.

Addressing the audience at St. Bartholomew's Church, site of a recent forum for mayoral candidates, he asks for their votes and says, "I come to you with a broad background."

Later, he says that he thinks he can win the Republican primary. And, even though Democrats outnumber Republicans 9-1 in Baltimore, he thinks he can defeat any Democrat in November.

"I have a shot against all of them. Let's face it, if you're talking about credentials, nobody can top this," he says. "Some of them are so young, they don't even know what I'm talking about. What have they done?"

Growing up

Adair was raised in Exmore, a town on the Virginia side of lower Delmarva. His father, with the benefit of only a third-grade education, was a truck farmer who also operated a lunch wagon and a small bus service and established a small store with a single gasoline pump. Young Carl worked in the fields and worked that gas pump. His mother was a Republican, and Carl followed suit.

Adair says a high school principal played a key role in getting him a football scholarship to Norfolk State University, where he played the line -- weighing all of 180 pounds. He earned a degree there and, later, from Virginia State University and Coppin State College, he said.

Adair joined the Army in 1956 and eventually was stationed at Fort Meade. Discharged from active duty, he worked as a bricklayer in Baltimore and then as a teacher. He recalls that in 1959 he became the only black teaching full time at what was then known as Patterson Junior High School.

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