Republicans undaunted by long odds

Politics: GOP candidates in Baltimore hope fresh faces and voter dissatisfaction will help them break a long losing streak.

September 11, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

They're out-numbered nearly 9-to-1 by rivals armed with larger bank books. They haven't won a mayor's race in three decades, haven't won a seat on the City Council since 1939.

Still, with another election just days away, Baltimore Republicans soldier on, fighting the belief that the September primary is the last word in determining who will run the city.

This year, they're driven by the hope that a slate featuring relatively fresh faces -- not to mention a chance to blame the city's troubles on 30 years of Democratic rule -- might allow at least one Republican to break the party's long November losing streak.

"It only takes one, and I really think that once people realize Republicans can do a good job, we can create our own publicity and not have the Democrats characterize us as urban demons," says David R. Blumberg, campaign treasurer for GOP mayoral candidate David Tufaro. "This is a tremendous opportunity to get people who are upset about the Democrats to listen to us."

But Blumberg is more than a little familiar with the challenges facing GOP candidates in Baltimore, home to only about 30,000 registered Republicans. After all, Blumberg was head of the city Republican Party for 16 years before stepping down last year.

He has witnessed the struggles to fill the party's allotment of poll judges, much less fill the ballot with candidates.

"I appreciate everybody running," he says. "God knows it's difficult."

Blumberg recalls that in years past, some reluctant candidates ran only on the condition that the party pay the $150 filing fee. One year, a GOP candidate for citywide office just up and left, moving to Kansas in the middle of the campaign, he said.

For the 1999 elections, however, Republicans have attracted a younger breed of candidate, party leaders say. They say Republicans have a chance to exploit the unsettled political landscape of a mayoral race with no incumbent -- and a bitterly fought Democratic primary.

That's true of Tufaro, a developer and political newcomer who is running the best-financed campaign of the GOP mayoral candidates.

"The Democrats are going to have to regroup," Tufaro says. "They haven't seen a real Republican campaign [for mayor] in a long time."

Victor Clark Jr., chairman of the city Republican Party and a candidate in the 4th Council District says, "There's going to be dissension, where some of the people from some of the three candidates may not want to come out and help anybody. We need to take advantage of every little opening we can.

"What we need is for a spark to be lit. This may be the perfect election."

Clark, a 54-year-old car salesman, was the GOP's nominee for mayor in 1995, but he ran a hardly noticeable general election campaign. He raised barely $1,000, with half coming from his own pocket. In contrast, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke raised about $2 million. Schmoke won election with almost 80 percent of the vote.

Tufaro has raised about $50,000 in contributions (with about half coming from himself), while the leading Democratic contenders have raised as much as $1 million.

Other Republican mayoral candidates in this year's election are: Carl M. Adair; Arthur W. Cuffie Jr.; Lynwood H. Leverette; Roberto L. Marsili; and Melanie M. Taylor. The only contested Republican City Council primary is in the 6th District, where there are four candidates for three nominations.

Clark and other party leaders say the lack of an incumbent mayor might also weaken the Democratic nominee's coattails for City Council candidates. The GOP is fielding its largest slate of City Council candidates in 20 years, said Dick Fairbanks, vice chairman of the city party and liaison to the council candidates.

"We think we have some chances in a couple districts," Fairbanks says. "Maybe more than a couple of districts."

Party leaders say the GOP's best chances of landing a council seat probably rest with Robert N. Santoni Sr., a businessman running in the 1st District, and Joseph Brown Jr., a bank manager running in the 6th District.

Brown ran unsuccessfully for a council seat in 1995, but he expects to win this year.

"I've knocked on over 4,000 doors, and I've only had four people tell me they won't vote for me because I'm a Republican," he says.

Santoni, president and co-owner of the East Baltimore-based supermarket chain of the same name, is a former Democrat who remembers how that party came to dominate in his neighborhood.

"When you were old enough to vote, the grand old fathers took you down and registered you as a Democrat," Santoni recalls. "That's how they built their numbers. They were smart."

He said he never met a Republican until he was 15.

A Republican since 1982, Santoni, 54, believes he's in the right district at the right time to break the Democrat's lock on the City Council. Santoni believes that the 1st District, while overwhelmingly Democratic, is more conservative than other areas of the city, and he believes he can defeat at least one of the district's team of Democratic incumbents.

He says he's raised about $28,000, and might even buy radio ads as the November election nears -- unheard of among GOP council candidates.

Still, he's well aware of the challenges of running as a Republican in a Democrat town. He tells a story from a few weeks ago on the campaign trail, and can laugh only because he is confident of victory.

He's knocking on doors in East Baltimore. At one rowhouse, he introduces himself to an elderly woman who's on the other side of a closed door. The door opens, just a crack, to accept a sheet of his literature.

He tells the woman, "I'm a Republican."

A few seconds later the door opens wider. The woman leans out, looks left, then right.

Then, as if sharing a secret with a fellow member of a secret society, she says, "I thought there was only one of us."

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