Recalling Rawlings as man who stood up for his beliefs

November 18, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

HE WAS halfway across the War Memorial Plaza when they started screaming at him. They surrounded Howard "Pete" Rawlings, and squeezed in on him suffocatingly, and strode menacingly with him step by step. Rawlings did not stop. He seemed to ignore them all. They wanted him to change his mind on the next mayor of Baltimore. He wanted to change history.

On that sunny summer morning four years ago, Rawlings was endorsing Martin O'Malley and not Lawrence Bell, setting off the most overtly ugly moment in modern city political history - and one of its most liberating.

Rawlings would not take the easy way out. Remember that, as they lay him to rest this week. In the eyes of many voters four years ago, he was simply, and inexcusably, going for the white guy instead of the black guy. Remember Rawlings' lingering lesson: The life of a community is about more than race. He was backing his vision of the best man, and asking, one more time, if we could think plainly about our survival and not just our skin color.

Remember him standing firm that day. Remember him in front of the War Memorial Building, with about 50 of these taunting, screeching people rounded up from street corners, hired for a few bucks to throw Rawlings off stride, to drown out his words of endorsement for O'Malley and, in their crude and clumsy way, to drown out history.

"We are not here to support the best black candidate, and we are not here to support the best white candidate," he said. He was halfway through the sentence when the taunting reached a crescendo. They were a few feet from Rawlings' face. You could see the veins in their necks. He could feel their breath on his face.

"We want Bell," they cried.

Rawlings did not care. He thought the mayoral front-runner Bell was still a child. He never for a moment lost his stride, or his dignity. "We are here," he said in that rumbling voice, "to support the best candidate." Period. And, in that moment, such was the power of Rawlings' endorsement, and the revulsion at his public mistreatment, that the race for mayor of Baltimore was over though it was months before voting day.

But as Delegate Rawlings, 66, goes to his grave Thursday, revered for his political strength and his moral integrity after a long twilight struggle with cancer, few know the struggle that preceded his historic backing of O'Malley, the white guy in a majority-black city who had been told he was the wrong skin color at the wrong time.

And few know O'Malley's own struggle, wondering if enough voters still believed in the melting pot - or if we were only a collection of uneasy political camps measuring each other by our differences. In his struggle that summer, he telephoned Rawlings and said he wanted to run.

"I admire your guts," Rawlings said. "Stephanie" - his daughter, Stephanie Rawlings Blake, who served on the City Council with O'Malley - "thinks very highly of you." But Rawlings said he was leaning elsewhere. It was old-style politics, originated by whites and adapted by blacks, even when it violated common sense. It was easier this way. And for Rawlings, in this campaign for mayor, it was expected.

But Rawlings struggled over his decision. He brought in O'Malley to meet with a few business types. He liked what he heard. But the polls said O'Malley had 7 percent of the vote. And, most pressing, Rawlings wondered about expectations in the African-American community if he switched support.

"He's a good man," Stephanie Rawlings Blake told her father a few nights later.

"What are you telling me?" asked Pete Rawlings.

"Not to support him because he's white defies everything our whole family's ever been about," she said.

His daughter was reminding him of lessons he had taught her, of the old civil rights-era ideals, of the notion of putting aside race to reach for the common good. The sentiment touched him deeply.

But Rawlings, always a pragmatist, needed more. He called O'Malley back and told him what he wanted in exchange for his backing: African-American inclusion in the mayor's Cabinet, on the Board of Estimates, in minority business contracts. He wanted assurance there would be no racial housecleaning at City Hall.

"I was going to do all those things anyway," O'Malley said.

The night before the endorsement, the two men learned there would be a confrontation with Bell's supporters at the War Memorial Plaza. Would Rawlings, faced with immediate public anger, back off?

"Why don't we rent a hotel room?" O'Malley suggested, a controlled environment to make the announcement and keep out the troublemakers.

"Frankly," said Rawlings, his deep voice rumbling, "this isn't your event, it's my event. If you want to come, you can come. If you don't feel you're up to it, you don't have to come."

He was the old pro, declaring he was in charge, declaring he'd been through far worse than this. He knew the consequences - but he also understood everything at stake.

It wasn't just an endorsement, but a statement of integrity. It wasn't just an election, but a city's future. Remember Pete Rawlings standing tall in the midst of the shrill screamers that day. Remember a politician who looked out for his constituents, and a man whose life transcended skin color.

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