Carl Stokes doesn't own a single pair of blue jeans.
The one-time clothing store owner who hopes to become the next City Council president relaxes in dress slacks at home. He cuts a relentlessly dapper figure on the campaign trail, sporting suit and tie -- not just in formal debates, but as he waves at traffic in sweltering heat. He ignores advisers who urge him to dress down.
"I think it's from school," said Stokes, 53. "I was a parochial school kid. I always wore a white shirt and tie. We always wore dress pants, even in kindergarten. We played football and everything else in our dress pants."
However, in the battle for the city's second-highest elective office, even the meticulously groomed, genteel Stokes has had to roll up his sleeves.
In recent campaign appearances, he has been more aggressive, punctuating his speech with clenched fist and raising his voice to preacher pitch. In a televised debate that aired late last month, Stokes bluntly asked City Council President Sheila Dixon about a closed-door meeting in August last year that the state's highest court has deemed illegal. When Dixon responded that the judge was wrong and biased, Stokes said: "But you didn't appeal it."
Earlier in the campaign Stokes occasionally pulled his punches, observers say. He seemed hesitant to go for the jugular in his quest for a job that sometimes demands just that.
In a debate early last month, Stokes held up a campaign flier from another challenger, Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh. He asked why it had been printed in Washington if Pugh was running on a pledge to give Baltimore businesses preference in city contracts.
Pugh responded that the rest of her literature was printed in Baltimore. That wasn't true; other Pugh materials were produced in the district. But Stokes did not challenge her on that point.
"He had a chance to hammer Catherine Pugh," said City Councilman Robert W. Curran, who attended the debate but has not endorsed anyone.
"He should have come back with another slam but he just let it hang there," Curran said. "I asked [Stokes campaign spokeswoman] Kelley Ray why. She said, `Carl's a gentleman.' I said, `Do you want to be a gentleman or do you want to be president of the City Council?'"
Stokes did not want to be president of the City Council but mayor when the campaign season began this summer. He insisted he was running for Baltimore's top job up until -- and throughout -- the day he filed for council president.
Of course, one office could lead to the other. If Mayor Martin O'Malley is re-elected, runs for governor in 2006 and wins, the council president would become mayor.
But Stokes' last-minute change in direction gave some the impression that he was casting about for a political office, any office. Back-to-back ballot box losses and his long-shot status in this race -- he has raised $10,756 to Dixon's $120,000 and Pugh's $91,000 -- suggest to some that he has become a perennial candidate.
"If you announce you're running for mayor and then switch to City Council president, that raises some questions about your focus and whether you're just in politics as a game and not as a public servant," said state Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Dixon supporter.
"One of the things that continues to stick with Carl is he's a loser," Rawlings said. "He's run a significant number of races that he's lost. People see you as a dilettante instead of a serious public servant."
Stokes said his 11th-hour decision June 30 was based not on whim but on discussions with political advisers upset with the sorry state of the City Council.
"Sen. Joan Carter Conway and others just thought I should run [for president]," he said. "It was their opinion that the council had become so weak and a nonentity, there needed to be an independent branch of government again called the City Council."
Stokes, who has taken a leave from his job as an executive at Mid Atlantic Health Care in Owings Mills, grew up in the Latrobe housing complex on the city's east side, the son of a factory worker and homemaker. He describes a happy and wholesome childhood, attending parochial school, shoveling snow, running errands for neighbors and -- as if to complete the urban Norman Rockwell scene -- selling the Saturday Evening Post door to door.
"The projects, when we grew up, were, in a sense, transitional housing," said Stokes, a South Charles Village resident and divorced father of two. "It's not a place where people stayed for generations. People moved up and moved out. People looked out for each other. No one ever thought of selling drugs."
Children growing up in Baltimore today aren't so lucky, says Stokes, who pledges to make things better for them if elected. It is a message he tries to drive home with his campaign theme, "Vote for the children," plastered on lawn signs in a childlike scrawl.
Stokes' ideas range from shrinking elementary school class sizes to rebuilding whole neighborhoods in the image of suburbia, complete with kid-friendly cul-de-sacs.