Democracy's awake despite droopy eyelids, drowsy crowd

September 08, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

It's 1:28 a.m. at the American Legion Post No. 39 in Bel Air. Eyes are drooping and heads are bobbing. The Coke pitchers have run dry, and the cheddar squares vanished from a silver platter hours earlier, leaving only the jalapeno cheese squares.

A candidates forum began 6 1/2 hours ago, with the endorsement of the local Fraternal Order of Police at stake. Over the course of a long, strange night, four dozen candidates expounded on issues that included traffic congestion, law enforcement and gay marriage.

But as the evening wore on, those in attendance grew increasingly restless. One candidate left before his turn to speak because he had to walk his dog. He came back later, saw that his turn was still hours away and left for good.

"If I had a fear of public speaking, that would be depleted by now," said Republican County Council candidate Kevin Patrick Kane when he stood to speak about 10:30 p.m.

Nearly every night, there's a political forum held somewhere by a community association, local political club or special-interest group in Maryland during election season. There is no shortage of candidates eager to attend. But increasingly, organizers say, it is becoming harder to get the public to turn out.

Julian L. Lapides, a state senator from 1967 to 1994, has participated in plenty of forums over the years. These days, he hosts them, as president of the Mount Royal Democratic Club. A recent forum in Bolton Hill attracted about 100 people - the speaking time was limited, and the candidates were confined to those who the club felt were legitimate contenders.

But Lapides acknowledges that the "candidates night" as a means of spreading a campaign message has waned over the years. Without attentive, decent-sized audiences, there may be little benefit for a candidate to attend, he said.

"I think that the public is either disillusioned or disinterested, and I'm afraid it's disinterested," Lapides said. "People used to love to come out - partly for the social aspect. That's been lost."

Not everywhere, of course. Every seat was taken and standees lined the walls when at least 200 people showed up at a recent candidates forum in west Columbia's Harper's Choice Village.

Howard delegate and former county executive Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat who represents the area, said the turnout is not unusual in Columbia.

"A lot of them are longtime Columbia residents who didn't move here for jobs or schools. They moved here because of Jim Rouse's plan to build a new community," she said, and they are interested in how their community, county, state and nation are run.

Even small numbers can be advantageous to a candidate, said James G. Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park. If only 25 prospective voters attend, they could spread the word of who was sharp-dressed or well-spoken to an exponential number of friends and neighbors. In races where the issues aren't well-defined or the candidates are little-known, a neighbor's endorsement might be all it takes.

"That's the function that yard signs play," Gimpel said. "You might not know a particular candidate, but you see that your neighbor supports them, and that tells you a lot."

Frank Finley, a 56-year-old resident of Edgewood, was one of several attendees at a forum held in the stifling auditorium of Edgewood High School who said he came away with his picks for several offices based on the candidates' performances.

"This is the first one I've ever been to," said Finley as he pumped change into a soda machine in the air-conditioned hallway. "I'm learning a little bit, instead of showing up on voting day and picking a name out."

Campaign fliers abounded at another recent forum held in Harford, in a one-time school building sitting amid end-of-season-high cornfields. But with no air-conditioning in the brick basement, most people were using the fliers as fans, not reading them.

The evening did not end until all seven candidates for District D - which encompasses Harford's rural northern swath - had their say, with the last candidate giving the audience his phone number and telling anyone to call anytime. The audience had questions, frequently off-topic and often beyond the purview of any county officials - from slots to feed lots and milk subsidies.

The marathon Fraternal Order of Police forum was designed to feature just county office seekers, but some of the candidates for state and courthouse positions were irked that they weren't invited. So the guest list swelled, and the evening dragged on.

For some political junkies, the late night amounted to an extra-innings ballgame, and they stuck around until the bitter end.

"This is what it's all about," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican who spent much of the night huddled with a former campaign aide who is running for County Council and a delegate who is running on her slate.

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