Crossover support for O'Malley no surprise

September 16, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AT 15 MINUTES before 10 o'clock Tuesday night, the night he all but got himself elected mayor of Baltimore, a soaking-wet Martin O'Malley stepped from a shower and did what every man in his situation wishes to do: He reached protectively for some precinct returns.

"Listen to this," O'Malley said to a telephone caller, an hour before he officially declared victory in the Democratic primary. Each syllable he uttered seemed to perform a little pirouette, and each word sprang wondrously across the telephone wire.

St. Ambrose School on Park Heights Avenue, O'Malley said, where the voters are all African-American. He rattled off numbers showing he'd gotten nearly a third of the vote there. And Edmondson High School, he said liltingly. Not only a third of the vote, but he'd beaten Lawrence Bell there. And Northwood Elementary School, in O'Malley's home councilmanic district: He'd won maybe 40 percent of the vote there, and the voters were black.

"What's going to shock people," O'Malley was saying now, as he reached for a towel instead of more precinct returns, "is the racial crossover."

In a campaign where race counted for so much, this counted more than anything. Yes, O'Malley captured 53 percent of the vote, so he'd have won even if Carl Stokes and Lawrence Bell hadn't canceled each other's black support. But that crossover to O'Malley made it a walk.

Every night in this campaign, you turned on your television set and there was O'Malley surrounded in his commercials by black people as well as white. Was it calculated? Of course. The scenes in political commercials might look unrehearsed, but they're about as spontaneous as brain surgery.

But the message was genuine: If you believe we suffer from racial divisions, if you believe we share fundamental problems that transcend race, then here is your candidate. Carl Stokes had the same core message, but his symbols weren't as strong -- and neither was the primary issue beyond race, which is the crime that never ceases and creates the neighborhood decay, and the continued middle-class flight to suburbia, and the chill that passes over all businesses considering a move here.

The last thought -- business -- came to mind Monday evening. There was Lawrence Bell, showing up (90 minutes late) for a live TV news interview. He had half a dozen sullen-looking young guys with him, and a woman. She was in her 20s, and wore a dress, what there was of it, that seemed to have been shellacked on. There was nothing across her shoulders, and a large tattoo on her bicep.

And there was the image: Such an entourage is going to sit in corporate boardrooms and persuade the great entrepreneurs of America to do business in the city of Baltimore?

This, of course, was only part of Bell's problem as he blew a 16-point lead in the polls and finally saw O'Malley's vote triple his. On the night before the election, Bell still hadn't figured out the infinite number of ways he'd damaged himself.

That hate literature, for example. His pals, Robert Clay and Daki Napata, had been caught making 3,000 copies of it -- and Bell still didn't get the implications. He should have waved that hate literature in the air like a banner, and declared, "This cannot be tolerated in my city. Anybody who knows me knows that I stand for racial civility, and for brotherhood and fairness, and not this kind of poison."

Instead, he was still muttering about misassumptions, still wondering who was behind the original printing of the material. And still imagining he'd been treated unfairly by reporters.

O'Malley's big percentage of black support shouldn't shock anyone. Black voters have supported white candidates all their voting lives -- including black-white elections. The last time William Donald Schaefer ran for mayor, for example, he not only defeated attorney Billy Murphy -- he also got a majority of the black vote.

Carl Stokes probably got about 10 percent crossover. But something important worked against him: O'Malley's tougher crime pitch, and Stokes' mixed messages on crime. It sounded like an echo of Kurt L. Schmoke, and after 12 frustrating years of this mayor, voters wanted a change.

In his acceptance speech Tuesday night, O'Malley gave everybody instant change. He was passionate, he was fiery, and he stressed the urgency of crossing racial divides. In three minutes, he showed more emotion than Schmoke showed in 12 years.

Does it matter? Absolutely. At its most artistic, politics is a blend of government and theater, which this mayor never figured out. O'Malley has an instinct for the emotional moment. It's not everything, but it's a start, and it touches everybody and transcends every skin color.

Pub Date: 9/16/99

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