Fells Point numbers add up to this: We haven't gone as far as we'd hoped

October 31, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

TWO DAYS after the city's primary election in September, there came a voice on the telephone and a name known to all on the east side of town: Jackie Watts, editor of the weekly East Baltimore Guide, dissector of every nuance of life there, who had some arithmetic reflecting the municipal psyche.

"Fells Point," she said.

In lower Fells Point -- the familiar Fells Point of cobblestone streets, of Broadway Market stalls, of pubs and rehabbed rowhouses and ancestral home of the laissez faire lifestyle -- the vote in the Democratic mayoral race had gone this way:

Martin O'Malley, 328.

Carl Stokes, 31.

Lawrence Bell, 1.

"I was one of six people who went out for a drink at Birds of A Feather the night after the election," Watts said, "and we went right down the line and asked each other who we'd voted for. Every single one voted for Stokes.

"And it hit everybody: This tiny little group of six people was one-fifth of the total vote that Stokes got in Fells Point."

The mathematics hung in the air for a moment. The city survived a primary campaign dragged into various racial antagonisms -- do we need to relive the War Memorial Plaza confrontation, or the white supremacy leaflets, or the language at that Druid Hill Park rally? -- but Stokes (and O'Malley) called consistently for racial healing.

How, in a place like Fells Point, a heavily white community but one always perceived as racially open-minded, could there have been so little crossover?

"It's a mirror of the city," Jackie Watts said. "O'Malley won everywhere."

But who anticipated such margins? Citywide, O'Malley received about one-third of the black vote, while Stokes got roughly 10 percent of the white vote. On Tuesday, the city goes to the polls to elect its first new mayor since 1987, still wondering what those primary numbers mean.

Twelve years ago, when Kurt L. Schmoke became mayor, many saw him not only as a man with a fabulous resume, but as a first-generation product of the great American civil rights movement. He would take everyone beyond the old suspicion. He would offer a voice of conciliation. He would be a role model for others learning to extend hands across the racial divide.

Or not.

In the course of three administrations, Schmoke seemed oblivious -- at best -- to the language of racial healing. At worst, he allowed those around him to give us the mayoral campaign of four years ago, when the city was encouraged to choose up sides by color.

So we gained no ground there. Over his final four years, the city lost an average of a thousand people a month to suburbia -- some white, some black, mainly middle class, all fleeing the city's edginess.

And three weeks ago, in the wake of the police shooting on Barclay Street -- two white cops struggling with a black suspect -- we were quickly thrust not only into high-profile allegations of police brutality, but of a whole history of its racial overtones instinctively raised at such moments.

Where do we go from here?

Despite its moments of racial slumming, the primary campaign gave the city signs of hope: when state legislators Pete Rawlings and Joan Carter Conway endorsed O'Malley, they made clear the need to put race behind us. When traditionally white labor unions crossed the other way, they were making their own statements.

But the next mayor enters with some old, intractable problems. Most of the city's impoverished are black, and so are its most troubled neighborhoods. The public schools, overwhelmingly black, continue to take in kids from fragmented families, from communities with murderous drug traffic, and thus we have the huge dropout rate, and the numbers who graduate but find they haven't been prepared for the next part of their lives.

O'Malley's war cry this fall was simple: Control crime, and the city breathes new life. That message resonated across racial lines, and seems a final nail in the coffin of gentle liberalism. Look to the causes of crime, such thinking said. Look at the poverty and the hopelessness that breeds anti-social behavior.

The new approach, zero tolerance, says: We tried that thinking for the last 30 years, and it didn't work because people kept taking advantage of our soft-heartedness while wrecking entire neighborhoods.

So now the pendulum swings again. But does zero tolerance provoke a new round of suspiciousness, new charges of police action based on skin color?

Twelve years ago, maybe we thought we'd have outgrown such instinctive response by now. But we still wrestle with such matters. We see it in when there's a police shooting, or when we count the ballots in places such as Fells Point, and the crossover comes up so small.

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