It's a new board but an old game

July 14, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

THANKS TO seven humans in red robes, Baltimore finds itself in a political time machine, whirling back to the days of a bossed-up city.

Races at every level will be run by nervous incumbents using tactics and tools unseen for a decade or more.

The folks in the robes -- judges of the state Court of Appeals -- thought a legislative district map drawn by Gov. Parris N. Glendening was too political. So they drew a new one. Veteran incumbents who thought themselves unbeatable are suddenly running as if it was their first campaign.

"Walking around money" could make a comeback -- in another guise, of course, since it's illegal. Campaigns will find ways to spend thousands to print leaflets and they'll deploy legions to stuff them in mail slots.

You might see a bit of "single shooting": a candidate's quiet urging of supporters to cast ballots for him/her alone when three votes are allowed in three-member districts. Single shooting theoretically focuses support where it's needed and denies it to opponents. It's a treacherous tactic if you're on a ticket because ticket mates are supposed to help each other.

Many fear it, but race could play a larger role. It's been a factor forever, of course. Polish, Irish, black and WASP groups have campaigned to elect their members -- especially when they've been the victims of opposition forces determined to hold them down and keep them out.

In northwest Baltimore, black leaders were urged in recent weeks to join with that district's incumbent senator, Barbara A. Hoffman, who is white.

Black-white coalitions have been forged here in the past. And black leaders are aware of the unusual stakes this year. Senator Hoffman has been chair of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee from which position of influence she has been able to steer financial resources to the city.

But black leaders want to nurture and develop black leaders for the future. That desire runs head on into the concerns about losing Senator Hoffman's voice.

People surely will think about these stakes as they did when Martin O'Malley was elected mayor over two black candidates two years ago. In that campaign, crime and weak black candidates turned voters to Mr. O'Malley.

One of his most prominent backers was Del. Howard P. Rawlings, an African-American who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. This time, Mr. Rawlings supports Del. Lisa A. Gladden against Senator Hoffman.

His reasons lie not just in responsibility for the future but in Baltimore's history.

When the late Harry Cole ran for the Maryland Senate 48 years ago, he ran as a Republican because the white, Democratic political boss did not field black candidates.

No one thought he had a chance. But Mr. Cole became this state's first black state senator.

Victory was sweet. He ran against Jack Pollacks' 4th District clubhouse and constituency, both finely attuned to the boss' needs. The black population was growing by the day in the 4th, but Boss Pollack didn't change until Harry Cole forced him to.

Give him this: He had an inkling that Harry Cole knew what he was doing. He rustled up another candidate named Cole to run in the same contest. "Name's the same," it was called in clubhouse parlance.

The idea was to confuse voters who really wanted to support candidate Harry A. Cole by giving them the choice of candidate Elmer Cole. Every confused vote for Elmer was a vote denied Harry.

Harry Cole, though, was too organized and too aware of the election law to be denied. He knew many of Mr. Pollack's voters didn't live in the 4th District but still voted there. So, when the results were in, he successfully challenged enough of these illegal votes to win. He served four years in the Senate, worked with Senate segregationists when he had to and eventually converted the boss. Sort of. In the next election, Mr. Pollack backed a black candidate who took back the seat.

Former Senator Cole went on to become the first African-American to don a red robe and sit on the Court of Appeals.

This history -- well within the memory of many who will vote in this September's primary -- governs much of what has happened and is yet to happen in this summer's campaigns.

But the story of Harry Cole shows that power elites can lose even in districts where they seem invincible.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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