For city council, more than year of political limbo

Strange date of primary leaves winners eager to start, few lame ducks

September 11, 2003|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

So much for the revolution.

In the first election since a referendum passed in November forced a kicking-and-screaming City Council to shrink and reorganize, incumbents held off all underdog challengers.

But it will hardly be business as usual at City Hall. The general election that follows Tuesday's primary won't occur for more than a year, leaving winners and losers alike in a long political limbo.

It will be an interregnum with lame ducks and a shadow council. Two primary winners plan to set up district offices and handle constituent concerns, no matter that 15 months and a general election stand between them and swearing-in.

"What I'm going to do is turn my [campaign] headquarters into a district office and start working," said former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who won the Democratic primary in the 14th District and faces Green Party and independent candidates in the general election.

"I have to," she said. "There's just so much to be done in our district."

James B. Kraft, an attorney and Democrat who won in the 1st District, says he has no choice but to get to work.

"Between last night and this morning I've got a pocket full of notes from people expecting me to help them," said Kraft, who faces a Republican. "You can't say, `Oh, I'm not really the councilman yet.' You can say it, but they want their problem solved. And they're not looking at the technicality that I haven't formally won the office."

These eager primary winners have raised hackles on the council, which is facing the awkward prospect of having primary rivals sit side by side in chambers until December 2004, when new members are sworn in.

Council President Sheila Dixon, meanwhile, will have to run a council during an extended lame-duck period while preparing for the new politics of single-member districts.

She discounted speculation that ousted council members will give up their seats and allow the Democratic primary winners to finish their terms. And she thinks the primary winners should wait until their election is official before acting like council members.

"I think that's jumping the gun," Dixon said. Clarke "doesn't need to come down to council and all that. People should not make real assumptions until the general election is over."

The outcome of several close races will not be known until Monday, when absentee ballots should be counted, said Barbara E. Jackson, the city election administrator.

In the 7th District, Democrat Belinda K. Conaway beat Shawn Z. Tarrant by 53 votes, while Republican Owen B. Hanratty was 11 votes ahead of Carlton "Yummy" Dotson. Just four votes separate Republicans Roberto L. Marsili and Brandon S. Katz in the 1st District.

The general election will not occur for 14 months because city officials and state lawmakers could not agree on moving the primary closer to the November 2004 general election. But winners of Democratic primaries are virtually assured of election in the city, where registered Republicans are outnumbered nearly 10 to 1.

With the primary behind it, Dixon said, the council can turn its attention to pressing issues: working on an ethics law and development plans, holding the school system accountable for spending, getting lead out of water in schools. She also will focus on adapting to the next council's single-member set-up, which was brought about by a ballot initiative.

"There's a lot on the plate," she said.

Over the fierce objections of council members, a coalition of community and labor groups pushed for ballot Question P, which shrank the council from six three-member districts to 14 single-member districts. The president continues to be elected citywide.

The measure was intended to make it easier for less established candidates to win office, but only three newcomers won in the Democratic primary - and in all three cases there was no incumbent. The only incumbents who lost were those who were forced by redistricting to run against fellow council members.

Question P backers took solace in the idea that formerly secure incumbents had to work harder to win.

"Some of these incumbents were pretty freaked out, and they should have been," said Mitchell Klein, head organizer for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which supported Question P.

The effect of redistricting is usually not felt in the first election after the changes, but in the second, said Lenneal J. Henderson, professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs. Grassroots candidates need more time to get organized for a run, he said.

"We have to allow for a transition period," he said.

Because of redistricting, six incumbents had to run against fellow council members. And in a particularly bitter race, Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh tried and failed to oust Dixon as council president.

"It's gonna be interesting because Monday night we'll all be sitting in there, friends, enemies," said Councilwoman Lois A. Garey, who lost to Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. in the 2nd District.

Garey said she intends to serve out the rest of her term but will ease up a bit.

"I'm not saying I won't work but I'm not going out every night," she said, noting that she wants to spend more time with her husband, who has been ill, and her two young grandsons. "If a community needs help, I'll help. But I'm not going [to meetings] just to show face."

The two other incumbents who lost, Melvin L. Stukes and Pamela V. Carter, said they would work right up to the end.

"I'm going to try to get 10 years of work done in 14 months," Stukes said.

Pugh said she will continue with "the same tenacity I've always had."

"I think it's important that this council does not operate in limbo," she said. "I think the communities have the right to expect us to serve them."

Sun staff writer Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

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