After long sleep, city's GOP begins to look competititve

October 28, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

DAVID Tufaro is the best thing that has happened to Baltimore's Republican Party in decades. He's not going to win his race for mayor on Nov. 2, but he could provide the impetus for turning the city's GOP into a legitimate opposition party.

He has been the most impressive Republican candidate for mayor since the days of Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin in the early 1960s. If Mr. Tufaro has staying power, he might succeed in winning some local office for himself. Certainly, he has blazed a path for other "new" Republicans who are sure to follow in his wake.

His contribution is two-fold. First, Mr. Tufaro is a wealthy man. That means he doesn't have to turn to the cash-strapped local GOP for help. He can raise -- through his friends and with his own money -- the cash required for a professional, high-level campaign that is visible to voters.

Second, Mr. Tufaro isn't a politician; he's a businessman who happens to be running for public office for the first time.

His focus has been exclusively on issues confronting Baltimore. He's not a slick pol who gives voters more mush than substance, or cuts backroom deals. Mr. Tufaro talks about issues. If you give him the time, he'll spend all day chatting about how to fix what's broken in the city.

What a refreshing change. Mr. Tufaro has given Republican ideas -- school choice, tougher enforcement of gun laws -- the kind of broad community discussion they deserve. Too often in Baltimore, Republican concepts are intentionally ignored by Democratic officeholders. That has come back to haunt the city, which could have used some new policy options as Baltimore's situation deteriorated.

The Calvert Institute, a local think-tank set up by conservative Republicans, has produced some provocative reports on ways to revamp city government and city schools. Instead of using these suggestions as a springboard for broad community debate, the Schmoke administration either ignored the reports or tried to discredit them.

That was a mistake. Sadly, there are signs the next mayor, Martin O'Malley, may be equally hard-headed in his approach to Republican proposals.

Tufaro's strong suit

This shouldn't stop Mr. Tufaro, though, from continuing to voice his suggestions on solving city problems. He's a bright lawyer with wide experience as a developer. He's far better equipped than Mr. O'Malley, for instance, to come up with workable answers on housing and economic development problems.

Republicans have put up spirited fights in some of the City Council races, too. Joseph Brown Jr. continues to impress with his campaigns in the 6th District (Southwest Baltimore). But the big surprise has been Robert Santoni's effort in the 1st District (East Baltimore and the harbor). He, too, brings considerable money to his campaign. He has the added advantage of being well-known through his family's supermarkets. And he has earned deserved plaudits for his work in community groups.

The key for these Republicans could be staying power. It took Helen Delich Bentley three tries before she won her U.S. House seat; it could take just as long -- or even longer -- for a Republican to break through in a city with a 9-1 Democratic voting majority.

But good ideas, voiced by personable candidates with solid community credentials, could eventually prove persuasive -- if the candidates have the financial backing necessary to run a credible campaign.

One party city

Baltimore badly needs a revived Republican Party. It's unhealthy to have a one-party system. Voters deserve viable options in case Democrats nominate an unacceptable character in their primary. Otherwise, holding a general election for mayor and City Council is meaningless.

Mr. Tufaro has grown enormously during this campaign. He has learned how to summarize his ideas and to engage in conversations that are amicable, not argumentative.

The next time he runs, his credibility will be higher and voters will be more familiar with his name. It's a long-distance race for city Republicans, who may finally have found a few marathon runners.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

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