For Bob Kaufman, winning votes was beside point

THE TALK

Socialist activist wanted to build a new world, not gain office

December 31, 2009|By Laura Vozzella | laura.vozzella@baltsun.com

All Bob Kaufman ever wanted was peace on earth, the redistribution of wealth, an end to the war on drugs, affordable car insurance for city dwellers and a new kidney.

He had to settle for 37,803 votes.

That would be a formidable number - twice what second-place finisher Keiffer Mitchell won in the 2007 Democratic primary for Baltimore mayor - if ithadn't taken Kaufman five elections to collect them.

After the socialist and perennial candidate died Friday, I got to wondering just how many votes he'd won running for offices ranging from Baltimore City Council to president of the United States. In the middle of the Christmas-New Year's vacation period, one day before a state employee furlough day, I got a partial answer. Jared DeMarinis, director of candidacy and campaign finance for the State Board of Elections, was able to provide the number of votes Kaufman had collected since 1999. (Older records are not in electronic form, so there was no digging them up on short notice.)

According to DeMarinis, Kaufman won 238 votes in the 1999 Democratic primary for mayor, 645 in the 2003 primary for mayor, 32,127 in the 2004 primary for U.S. Senate, 3,908 in the 2006 primary for U.S. Senate and 885 in his last race, for mayor again, in 2007.

Kaufman's greatest electoral showing, that 2004 Senate primary, was clearly a protest vote against a safe incumbent, Barbara Mikulski. He took 7.1 percent of the vote. When he ran for Senate again two years later, he got just 0.7 percent of the vote in a crowded primary won by then-Rep. Ben Cardin.

Maybe Kaufman should have quit while he was behind. But winning was never the point for Kaufman.

"One time he said if he won, he'd demand a recount," recalled longtime friend Jerry Shargel, who made "many, many banners and signs" for Kaufman campaigns and even took dictation for the prolific letter-to-the-editor writer. "He couldn't type, nor was his handwriting any good."

Kaufman acknowledged having "absolutely no chance at winning the race" when he announced his bid for mayor in 2007. He launched his campaign on The Block, where he called for the creation of a red-light district where prostitution and drugs would be legal.

"I have no aspirations to be mayor," he told The Sun's Brent Jones at the time. "But people should vote for me to help build a movement."

To Kaufman's supporters, his Election Day losses were puzzling.

"We don't know why good people don't win," said David G.S. Greene, a retired Towson University physics professor who ran for City Council president in the 1990s on a ticket with Kaufman, who was running for mayor.

Kaufman had a quarrelsome style that turned off some would-be comrades. After talk-show host Marc Steiner was ousted from WYPR in 2008, a lefty group that tried to return him to the airwaves split over whether to allow Kaufman to participate.

"He would go into a flaming rage if you disagreed with him," Shargel recalled. "He devoted himself to literally saving the world," but could be "very cantankerous" about it.

Even so, it was possible for those who did not share Kaufman's socialist ideology to respect his unshakable faith in it. In 2005, Kaufman was nearly killed by a tenant who beat and stabbed him. He suffered complications that left him on dialysis and in need of a kidney.

At his attacker's sentencing, Kaufman used the platform to condemn a society that he said had helped turn the man into a criminal - and to make a plea for a donated kidney, which never came.

The next day, Kaufman took The Sun to task for describing him in a news story as a "pacifist."

"There are irreconcilable differences between the exploited and the exploiters. I can hardly ask the exploited to turn the other cheek," Kaufman said. "So anybody who calls me a pacifist, at least psychologically, I'm ready to punch them in the nose."

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