Voters will decide on agent of change to heal the city

September 13, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

THE Big Boss here likes to talk about managers becoming "agents of change." That pretty much sums up tomorrow's election for mayor of Baltimore.

Which of the top Democrats -- Lawrence Bell, Martin O'Malley or Carl Stokes -- has made the strongest case as a "change agent" for city government?

The Schmoke administration has worn out its welcome. The dynamism that propelled Kurt L. Schmoke into the mayor's office 12 years ago is gone. City Hall is on automatic pilot.

Mr. Schmoke's disappearing act is curious. He made no effort to woo a high-quality candidate into the race, or anoint a successor from those who filed.

He gave voters -- and his loyal aides -- no guidance. He made no effort to ensure that his legacy will be furthered by the next mayor.

Instead, the next mayor may dismantle Schmoke initiatives in policing, housing, job development and government operations.

Thankfully, race never became a burning issue in this campaign. Candidates made biracial appeals. Their contributors and supporter cross racial lines. Aside from the racist flier reprinted by the Rev. Daki Napata and Robert Clay, the campaign has been more about competence than skin color.

Mr. Bell started as the clear front-runner because he's City Council president and held big fund-raisers last year.

But when Kweisi Mfume, the NAACP president, indicated he wanted to be mayor, political leaders lined up behind him.

Mr. Bell persevered, though, and was rewarded when his cousin, Mr. Mfume, bowed out. Once again, the council president was the runaway leader. He finished first in an early poll by Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications Inc. -- 33 percent to 17 percent for Mr. Stokes.

Then Mr. O'Malley filed as a candidate. It was a bold move for a white councilman in a majority-black town. But Mr. O'Malley is an astute politician. He recognized that he had a shot if neither Mr. Bell nor Mr. Stokes became the consensus pick of Baltimore's diverse black community.

Zero-tolerance approach

Mr. O'Malley beat his opponents to the pivotal issue of this election: Baltimore's high crime rate. His campaign has focused like a laser on getting drug dealers off street corners. He's also been the clearest in expressing a desire to clean house at City Hall.

By early August, Mr. O'Malley had zoomed from nowhere to a statistical dead heat with Mr. Bell in the Gonzales/Arscott poll.

Mr. Stokes, meanwhile, stumbled. His credibility was hurt by literature wrongly stating he'd graduated from Loyola College. Then two important black politicians, Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings and state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, backed Mr. O'Malley. So did state Sen. Barbara Hoffman and state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer.

But he recovered, thanks to a number of timely endorsements from the ministerial alliance, The Sun and the Afro-American.

Just as Mr. Stokes was gaining, Mr. Bell's poll support was falling. Supporters' "dirty tricks" dogged him. Mr. Bell lamely explained that he couldn't control his backers.

A late August Gonzales/Arscott poll showed Mr. Stokes jumping from third to first -- in a statistical tie with Mr. O'Malley.

The Irish band leader proved an adept fund-raiser. As his poll numbers surged, so did his campaign cash. He bought TV ads in August at the same time as Mr. Bell. (Mr. Stokes' face wasn't visible on TV ads until last week -- and then he opted for artsy black-and-white commercials of dubious impact.) Mr. O'Malley has been buying radio commercials, too. His ads deliver clear messages.

Bell stumbles

Mr. Bell touts his achievements and experience as council president. But his campaign lacks a central theme. He's spent more time defending his followers' actions than promoting his vision.

Mr. Stokes, too, has failed to highlight a particular theme. What's his most prominent issue? It's hard to tell because he's trying to please so many constituencies.

Only Mr. O'Malley has an easy-to-remember message for voters.

Will it be enough? Mr. O'Malley is expert at getting his identified supporters to the polls. Mr. Stokes is depending on labor and ministerial backing for a heavy turnout. Mr. Bell has his loyalists within city government and city labor groups to get out the vote.

Turnout will be key -- not just the overall percentage but which city neighborhoods have the heaviest voting trends. Tomorrow, all the work of a long summer's campaign will be forgotten. It will be up to voters to pick their agent of change at City Hall.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 9/13/99

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