Tufaro's viewpoint challenges politics as usual in Baltimore

GOP nominee for mayor tries to shift city's ways

October 03, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The last time David F. Tufaro held political office was 30 years ago, when he was chairman of the Progressive Party at the Yale University Political Union, leading debates beside the pipe organ in the high Victorian confines of Battell Chapel.

What inspired this reserved and cerebral 52-year-old developer from Roland Park to quit his $155,000-a-year job and plunge into the muddy brawl of Baltimore politics in the hope of becoming the city's first Republican mayor since 1967?

Friends say Tufaro doesn't so much expect to win as to force the city's liberal establishment to consider conservative solutions to urban problems it has made worse, such as the flight of the middle class and the failure of public schools.

In other words, he's trying to transform Mob Town politics into a public policy forum like the Yale Political Union.

There is also this explanation for his career change: a multimillion-dollar profit in a business deal involving Amazon.com last year left him so rich he doesn't have to work.

But whether his Ivy League-style debating tactics will win the hearts of rowhouse Baltimore is still to be seen.

While he delivered a 15-page dissertation on "encouraging quality urban design" and other subjects in front of Broadway Homes public housing complex last week, he was surrounded and shouted down by residents.

"Don't come in here with that bull," shouted Mae Huff, 55, a member of the tenants council. "He can't relate to the people of Baltimore. He can't tell us how we should live."

At 5 feet 7 inches tall, 140 pounds, with a high-strung, intensely serious demeanor, Tufaro appeared out of place there in his dark-blue pinstriped suit.

He seemed stunned by the boos and shouts. But then he displayed the character that those who know him say has defined his life. Despite the catcalls, he doggedly plowed through the details of his 15-page position paper, his slightly nasal voice calm and persistent.

Afterward, he stuck around to talk to his critics. He didn't seem to win them over, but he told them, "This is exactly the kind of discussion we should be having."

Tufaro's supporters describe him as a philanthropist and urban policy devotee who has succeeded in so many business ventures that he doesn't fear failure.

He is highly intelligent but opinionated, pugnacious and sometimes irritating even to his co-workers. When Tufaro speaks, he tends to talk in not just complete sentences, but whole paragraphs, thrusting his index finger upward or chopping his hand through the air if anyone tries to interrupt him.

"He's sort of an Italian Jimmy Carter, a terrible politician but a great human being who doesn't want to barter on the issues," said Charles W. Brown, a former partner of Tufaro's who is a vice president of Summit Properties Inc., a development company in Atlanta.

Analytic approach

Tufaro has such a tendency to analyze and rethink issues that it took him two years to plan the kitchen of his home on Edgevale Road in Roland Park.

The kitchen, which was designed by the architect of the American Visionary Art Museum, features skylights, stained-glass windows, contemporary Italian halogen lights, a French 19th century dining-room table and counter tops made from huge slabs of black Indian granite.

"He's very thoughtful but it's not easy for him to make a decision," the architect, Rebecca Swanston, said, laughing.

Tufaro has a temper. He scolded the leaders of civic groups and media outlets for refusing to include Republicans in debates and news coverage because the city is overwhelmingly Democratic.

He tells of how a few years he chased a Mass Transit Administration bus speeding on Falls Road near his home, pulled over when the bus stopped and yelled at the driver for violating the 30-mph speed limit.

"Sometimes you just get so angry about things you just have to go out and do something about them yourself," said Tufaro.

New York upbringing

Tufaro is the son of a concrete mason, Frank Tufaro, whose family moved from Terra Nova Di Napolini, Italy, to East Harlem, New York City, when Frank was 3.

The elder Tufaro never went to college but took great pride in helping to lay the stairs of the Empire State Building.

He went on to become president of the New York State Homebuilders Association. He prospered, building hundreds of houses until his development business was crushed by the recession of 1953-1954.

"There were enormous financial strains at home, and we saw the stresses between our father and mother," said Richard Tufaro, 55, one of David's two older brothers. "They argued a lot. You could hear them shouting. It was very stressful for my mother, but my father felt he couldn't do any more than he was doing."

Frank Tufaro refused to declare bankruptcy, shifting from development to become a real estate agent and eventually paying off his debts just before he died in 1975.

Yale education

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