Incumbents - or `interims' - wear targets in city races

September 02, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

One of the challengers calls Mayor Sheila Dixon "queen for a day." It's a not-so-sly reference to the fact that Ms. Dixon became mayor not by a vote of the people but by succeeding Gov. Martin O'Malley.

A more formal evocation of the tactic, used by most of the other challengers, is to call her "the interim mayor," as if the voters are just waiting to send her into retirement.

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who succeeded Ms. Dixon, hears "interim" tacked to the front of her title as well.

Both instances of name-calling are pretty tame for campaigning these days. Much worse has been heard from races around the nation in recent years. And it may be a good thing, suggesting fairly enough that Ms. Dixon and Ms. Rawlings-Blake must earn their offices at the polls.

It's also par for the course when, as in these cases, the playful gibes are followed by assertions calling the candidates to account for serious matters. It reminds voters that both incumbents are new to their elevated responsibilities.

Both candidates are obliged, quite appropriately, to run as if they were not incumbents, not having earned their titles in the usual way.

Perhaps that is the reason that once the audience giggling over "queen for a day" subsides, Mayor Dixon must explain why she should not be held accountable for the escalating murder rate in Baltimore or a high school graduation rate that falls far below desirable standards. Ms. Dixon was in the City Council for 20 years. Ms. Rawlings-Blake has been there for 12.

The season's many debates have included some in-your-face condemnations - with the targets sitting right next to the challengers at the debate venues.

Ms. Dixon flies through the heaviest flak. She gets understated but frequent attacks for being allied with Governor O'Malley since his days as mayor, a suggestion that she's close to a former mayor who was not the favorite of everyone in Baltimore.

More frontally, her leadership is called into question sharply by every challenger, especially Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who is descended from the civil rights movement's most famous Maryland family; Del. Jill P. Carter, the daughter of the late civil rights leader Walter P. Carter; and Andrey Bundley, a school administrator who ran for mayor four years ago. Trailing by wide margins in the campaign's early polling, Ms. Carter and Mr. Bundley have adopted a nothing-to-lose approach.

Mr. Bundley, the campaign's best communicator, formulates observations about the incumbent mayor with the flare of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, combining near-poetry with biting commentary.

In a sense, all these challengers are taking a page from the also-ran manual compiled over a lifetime by A. Robert Kaufman, the man who is always thinking about his next race. Mr. Kaufman has been a pox-on-all-your-houses candidate for years - but never without a provocative message. The caretaker aspect of the races for mayor and council president this year affords challengers, including Mr. Kaufman, a more attentive audience for contrary points of view.

It's a point that probably has not been missed by the candidates called "front-runners" after early polling. Ms. Carter and Mr. Bundley are likely to draw significant numbers of votes - unless the putative leaders are able to sharpen their appeals.

Thus, we see again the value of money in campaigns. Ms. Dixon has the resources to put her message in front of the TV viewer and voter. Councilman Mitchell, also accused by his opponents of ineffectiveness over 12 years in office, has been able to afford some advertising as well. Both he and the mayor are in a position to put on bigger TV campaigns than the challengers - some of whom have done very well in the area of "earned" media, the sort of TV or newspaper coverage a candidate attracts with ideas and issues and events.

For the most part, Councilman Mitchell, Council President Rawlings-Blake and Mayor Dixon have handled the gibes and the jokes with good grace.

Incumbents are always thought to have an advantage in politics. But in this race, it could be argued that none of the candidates is a true incumbent. Each of them has to show that he or she is the one to lead Baltimore into a new day.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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