History favors O'Malley, Democrats in city elections

GOP has not won council, mayoral race in decades

October 12, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Martin O'Malley was an infant the last time a Republican was elected mayor of Baltimore.

That was in 1963, when Theodore R. McKeldin, a former mayor and governor, won a narrow victory over Philip H. Goodman. No Republican has come close to winning the city's top post since McKeldin 41 years ago, and it has been 65 years since the GOP won a City Council seat.

On Nov. 2, O'Malley will face a little-known Republican, Elbert R. "Ray" Henderson, and a pair of write-in candidates in the city's first municipal general election that coincides with a presidential contest. In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 9 to 1, the only mystery is whether O'Malley will beat his opponent as badly this time as he did in his first campaign.

For those keeping score, O'Malley won by 78,400 votes in 1999.

The Democratic lock on the city is rooted in its past as an industrial center where the union movement and the New Deal brought working-class voters into the Democratic fold.

In more recent years, the Democrats have been drawing their strength from thousands of black Baltimoreans who are party stalwarts, as well as voters of all races who see the Democrats as being more friendly to city interests than Republicans.

The 15 Democratic nominees to the City Council might not all be the overwhelming favorites the mayor is -- especially with new single-member districts, some featuring Green Party as well as GOP challengers on the ballot. But if history is any guide, Democrats will probably be chosen for the legislative body, whose last Republican member was elected in 1939, the same year Judy Garland followed the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz.

City not unusual

Baltimore's Democratic dominance, while extreme, is hardly unusual.

Of the country's 30 largest cities, only one outside the Sun Belt has a GOP mayor, and that's because New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg switched parties to run as a Republican in 2001.

St. Louis has not elected a Republican mayor since World War II; Chicago and Boston, since the Roaring '20s.

"There are a lot of East Coast and Rust Belt cities where Republican parties have all but given up," said Joe Garecht, a Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist.

Nationally, signs of slackening of the stranglehold on traditionally Democratic urban centers are few and far between.

From 1993 to 2001, the mayors of the country's two largest cities were Republican: Rudolph W. Giuliani in New York and Richard Riordan in Los Angeles. And five years ago in Philadelphia, Republican businessman Sam Katz came within 10,000 votes, out of nearly 450,000 cast, of beating Democrat John Street, though Street trounced Katz in a rematch last year.

Influence of immigrants

The influx in many cities of new Hispanic and Asian immigrants helped Republicans in New York and Los Angeles, and is slowly introducing some more unpredictability elsewhere, according to Bernard Ross, a professor of public administration at American University in Washington and co-author of Urban Politics.

"We don't know whether the Vietnamese [immigrants] are Republicans or Democrats," he said. "The situation is becoming more fluid."

It was the Democratic embrace of immigrants in an earlier age -- the late 1800s and early 1900s -- that helped to establish the party as a power in Baltimore and many other cities.

The New Deal helped solidify Democrats as the party of the workers and the poor who lived in burgeoning older cities. After World War II, the conservative descendants of many of those early immigrants left the cities for the suburbs. In their place came blacks from the South, whose bonds with the Democrats were formed by the party's support of civil rights legislation. And over the past several decades, Democratic national policy tended to favor cities more than that of the Republicans.

In Baltimore, Republicans have occupied the mayor's office for only 19 of the last 100 years. One of the GOP's worst defeats came in 1983 when William Donald Schaefer received 130,741 votes compared with just 8,771 for Samuel A. Culotta.

"Baltimore 100 years ago was very competitive," said John T. Willis, senior executive-in-residence at the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs and an authority on Maryland elections. "Republicans were the progressives, and Democrats were the conservatives."

GOP losing ground

While Republicans are struggling to make inroads in traditionally Democratic bastions, they are losing ground elsewhere. In 1999, Bart Peterson became the first Democrat elected mayor of Indianapolis in 36 years, and Michael Coleman became the first Democrat elected mayor of Columbus, Ohio in 32 years, and that city's first African-American mayor ever. Both easily won re-election last year.

Even in places where the GOP has had won at the top of the ticket, that success hasn't trickled down. In New York, all but three of 51 council members are Democrats.

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