TODAY WE spend a few moments with Carl Stokes, whose views on education and neighborhoods and race make him one of Baltimore's thoughtful public figures. But first we look at Nathaniel J. McFadden, who needed to get in touch with his own brain.
Four years ago, in the dispiriting slum of the campaign for mayor, it was state Senator McFadden who said that Baltimore was 202 years old, and that white people had held the job of mayor for 189 years and black people only 13 years. Meaning that, whatever else was happening, such as 300 homicides a year or decaying housing or the ongoing catastrophe of the public schools - or the character of the candidates - sheer racial history is why the city should not elect another white person until the political arithmetic was balanced, in about another 200 years.
I thought that was the sound of idiocy then, and I still do. If we continue to choose up sides by race, then we remain two cities. If we look at our candidates with clear eyes - which of these people is best for all of us, no matter the skin color? - then the city gives itself a fair shot at renewal.
This gets us back to McFadden, and to Carl Stokes, who says he wants to run for mayor again.
"At this point, O'Malley is way out there," McFadden said in yesterday's Sun. "If the objective is to have the best mayor, it's going to be hard to beat O'Malley. If the objective is to get a black mayor, those who say they are running have to make some tough decisions."
Did he say, If?
As in, if the objective is to have the best mayor?
On what grounds, exactly, do we wish to have someone other than the best possible mayor, whatever his or her race? Meaning, nobody should vote for O'Malley just because he's white - any more than they should vote for someone else just for not being white.
The issue arises because, eight days ago, in a meeting at the Forum catering hall, we had some of the city's foremost African-American political leaders gather to discuss the possibilities of running against O'Malley in this summer's Democratic mayoral primary.
And the question has come up: Is this about defeating O'Malley because he hasn't been a good mayor? Or because he might bolt for another job in a few years? Or is this, after all this time, and after so much unpleasantness four years ago, still about choosing up sides by race?
McFadden wasn't taking sides this time. He was pointing out the framework of the eternal American debate: Do we pick the best candidate or the best candidate who looks like us?
(In fact, at an O'Malley fund-raiser last night, McFadden seemed like a different man from four years ago. In front of a big crowd at the Ravens' stadium, he called O'Malley "the nation's greatest young mayor.")
In Stokes' mind, both things are going on.
"Well, let's be honest," he was saying the other day. "I wasn't at the meeting at the Forum" - though he did have a representative there - "but if I read it correctly, they're saying we need a black candidate who will challenge O'Malley. See, I think every [ethnic] group does that. The Jews, the Italians, the Greeks, everybody sits down together and says, `Do we do this? Do we do that? Is it good for our group?'
"We're just doing what other communities do. We're talking about it. If we're saying, `It's only good to have a black mayor,' then that's wrong. But if we're saying, `We don't think O'Malley's done a good job, and who have we got in our community to beat him?' then that's a different story."
And, in Stokes' mind, he wants to run for mayor again because of the job O'Malley's done.
"I think he's done a lousy job," Stokes said. "Simple as that. He's hammered and beeped and screamed about crime, and where are we? He said he'd reduce murders to 125 a year. Then he said, `Well, let's try for 175.' This year, we're already at 101.
"So he says, `Forget it, my new goal is zero.' OK, I didn't graduate from college, but I know zero comes before 101."
That's Stokes engaging in a little self-deprecating humor. When he ran for mayor four years ago, he falsely claimed he was a college graduate. Having apologized, he wishes to have a brief laugh at his own foolishness, and then move on. But he wants to make a larger point.
"My issue isn't homicides," he says. "When I go around neighborhoods, people tell me crime is as prevalent as ever, no matter what statistics say. People say they have trouble sleeping at night. These are places where they leave the windows open because they can't afford air conditioning, and they hear gunshots, they hear people selling drugs all night.
"My point is, you get more bang for the buck when you put the money into schools. We can't police our way out of this. We have to do better by our children. Somehow, he finds money for police every year. Well, somehow, we have to find the money for schools and for after-school programs. Get the kids off of street corners.
"We've got neighborhoods that are still falling apart. What's his housing department doing? Nothing, there's no vision on housing. Then you go to the Board of Estimates, and you see them giving tax breaks to rich people to develop the Inner Harbor. But the city's more than that."
And the difference, in Stokes' mind, is more than skin color. Which is a healthy thing to hear from all candidates, whatever their other differences may be.