Power politics

September 12, 2002

THREE YEARS AFTER the upset that brought Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley to power, Tuesday's primary triumphs of Lisa A. Gladden and Verna L. Jones have introduced an intriguing new dynamic to Baltimore politics. Overnight, the African-American leadership vacuum of the past several years has started to fill in.

Together with Delegate-elect Jill P. Carter, the winners not only represent a younger generation, they -- and their behind-the-scenes supporters -- also are in a position to act as catalysts for further leadership rejuvenation.

Only two of these candidates (Ms. Jones and Ms. Carter) earned The Sun's endorsement, and grave doubts remain about their experience level, maturity and ability to deliver for the city. But their wins represent a clear opportunity to begin building a city leadership team of the future -- and they prove how much influence current leaders, working together, can wield over the city's future.

The campaign of Ms. Gladden, a first-term delegate, is a case in point.

Her election over Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, an 18-year veteran, became such a test of strength to the city's black decision-makers that the Gladden campaign united factions that usually are at one another's throats.

Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke worked for her, and so did NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, all-purpose Svengali Julius Henson and a number of other proven war horses. They strategized, endorsed -- and shook money trees for her.

The central figure was Del. Howard P. Rawlings. The 41st wasn't even his district, but he forcefully inserted himself into the Gladden-Hoffman contest. To him, the issue in the district where 75 percent of registered Democrats are African-American was electing representatives "who look like them, smell like them and think like them."

In the process, retaining an ethnic power base became a more important consideration than Ms. Hoffman's influential position as the chair of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. Mr. Rawlings even transferred more than $32,000 from his political account to aid Ms. Gladden.

Giving an additional $15,000, Mr. Rawlings also acted as a godfather to Ms. Jones, another first-term delegate. She trounced Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a maverick from a tarnished civil rights dynasty whom Mr. Rawlings called "the most despicable senator we have."

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy was another candidate who owes the margin of her victory to Mr. Rawlings' coalition-building.

As a consequence of these feats, Mr. Rawlings now emerges as the pivotal kingmaker in Baltimore's African-American political circles. The defeat of Ms. Hoffman -- and the retirement of Sen. Clarence W. Blount -- has also made him arguably the most influential Baltimore lawmaker in Annapolis.

None of this will matter much unless Baltimore can somehow compensate for its lost clout, particularly in the Senate. This will be almost impossible, but must be tried. Ms. Hoffman's defeat will not only deprive Baltimore of a seniority-based chairmanship but also ends the chair's prerogative to see to it that money is channeled to take care of critical urban problems.

Mr. Rawlings' new kingmaker position is also likely to affect his touchy relationship with Mayor O'Malley.

Mr. Rawlings was part of the interracial alliance that two years ago secured the white councilman's elevation. More recently, their relationship has been under strain. For example, many in the Rawlings camp are upset that the mayor has appointed so many whites to key Cabinet positions.

Race became an issue in the Jessamy campaign, too. Mr. Rawlings tried to persuade Mr. O'Malley to endorse the incumbent -- in order to prevent Anton J.S. Keating from becoming yet another powerful white office-holder. The mayor wisely refused, opting to stay neutral.

That may have been a perfectly palatable compromise to Mr. Rawlings at the time. But in the glow of his successes Tuesday, everything has changed, including speculation about whom he should support in 2005, when Mr. O'Malley's first term ends.

In that sense, the primary may have been more about power-sharing in Baltimore than about legislative positions. But without money, power is likely to be illusory and victories negligible.

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