Mayor's contest in final stretch

No clear leader in hotly contested primary election

'People have the power'

Candidates vying for council, comptroller also on ballot Tuesday

September 12, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Baltimore voters will take to the polls Tuesday in one of the most competitive elections in city history and the first without an incumbent mayor in 28 years.

The mayoral race drew national attention for its 27 candidates -- and for some of their missteps and foibles, including a little-known candidate's arrest on burglary charges.

"The important thing [for candidates] is to provide specific solutions, and the person who articulates that best will win," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who will step down in December after 12 years. "It's just so difficult when you have so many candidates."

And the primary election races on the bottom of the ticket are equally competitive.

Six Democrats will compete for City Council president, the city's second-highest elected office, while 57 Democrats, 15 Republicans and one Libertarian candidate will jostle for 18 council seats in six districts. The ballot also includes a re-election bid by the city comptroller, who is being challenged by two Democrats in Tuesday's primary.

With two days to go, many of the races are still up for grabs, as Baltimore braces for the first sweeping government transformation in over a decade.

The eyes of the nation are expected to be on the mayoral race to see whether Baltimore will be the latest predominantly black city to elect a white mayor.

Although two out of three Baltimore residents are black, white City Councilman Martin O'Malley is expected to benefit Tuesday by a split in the city's black vote.

O'Malley faces two veteran black politicians in City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and former City Councilman Carl Stokes in their attempts to become Baltimore's 47th mayor.

In predominantly black cities such as Oakland, Calif., and Gary, Ind., residents have abandoned racial solidarity to choose the candidate they believed best suited to address urban poverty and the problems that go with it: rampant drug use, chronic joblessness, a reign of murder and blighted neighborhoods.

Unlike the 1995 mayoral race, when Baltimore residents tended to vote along racial lines, recent polls show an estimated one in five black voters leaning toward O'Malley, while Stokes is favored by one in four white voters.

"I think many of the voters, both black and white, are looking for a mayor to turn the city around," said Herb C. Smith, a Western Maryland College political science professor.

Schmoke era ending

The search for Baltimore's new leader began 40 weeks ago when Schmoke announced his decision to forgo a fourth four-year term.

The city's first elected black mayor -- who arrived almost 100 years after the first black city councilman, a Republican, was elected -- gained national fame for calling drug addiction a medical problem instead of a criminal issue.

Yet the mayoral tenure of the Rhodes scholar and high school quarterback hero has remained hampered by 1,000 mostly middle-class residents moving out of Baltimore each month, leaving behind a city with one out of every four residents living in poverty.

Schmoke has overseen the demolition of the city's high-rise public housing and its replacement with new townhouse communities. But he has been stymied in his attempts to find the solutions to 300 homicides a year, the lowest school test scores in the state, the loss of manufacturing jobs and a property tax rate two times that of any other jurisdiction in Maryland.

The Mfume draft

As quickly as the mayoral race began, it appeared to be over when 250 political, community and business leaders attempted to draft Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The former congressman and councilman from West Baltimore seemed the perfect antidote to the urban strife.

But in May, after five months of consideration, Mfume spurned the effort, deciding to remain with the nation's oldest civil rights group and leaving Stokes and Bell as the chief mayoral candidates.

Stokes had joined the race immediately after Schmoke's announcement. At coffee klatches across the city, the 49-year-old former city councilman and school board member told supporters he was running because "I'm not going to live like this anymore."

Stokes immediately became a long-shot with the emergence of Bell, a 12-year council veteran whose name recognition appeared to give him the status of a virtual incumbent.

Bell, 37, raised $1.1 million in his mayoral bid after gaining the support of city labor unions, including police, with his pledge to bring to Baltimore the zero-tolerance crime-fighting strategy credited with reducing violent crime and drug dealing in cities such as New York, Cleveland and New Orleans.

One man conspicuously absent at the Bell mayoral announcement was O'Malley. The two had climbed to the forefront of council leadership over the past eight years, earning the nicknames "Batman and Robin" for their tough crime-fighting proposals.

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