In the basement of Gloria Aull's Canton row house, the conversation at the kitchen table has turned from the platter full of plump red strawberries to the dry cleaner's son who happens to be a candidate for the City Council. And a Republican at that.
"An attorney," Mrs. Aull reads aloud from the morning newspaper.
"That shocks me. Is he really?" asks Dolores Canoles, as she scoops up a crackerful of vegetable dip.
"If he gets any votes at all," says Mrs. Aull, the gravel-voiced, silver-haired hostess of this impromptu, political kitchen klatch, "he's going to get them from people who go to his mother and father's dry cleaners. There's not that many Republicans."
Which reminds Barbara Baynes. "I'm desperate for Election Day judges," says Mrs. Baynes, whose boss nominates the judges, a political privilege accorded the state senator in the district.
"If you know anybody . . ."
And that reminds Mrs. Aull of the time, oh, 40 years ago, when she was drafted to be an election judge at the poll in School 47, Hampstead Hill Elementary.
"They came at 5 o'clock in the morning, throwing stones at my window," says the 67-year-old widow. "The woman who had been handling the books had taken a full-time job. And the older women there were reluctant to take that job because they were afraid they would screw up. So I had to run the books. I came from a family of bean counters."
These are the ladies of the Fighting First, the majority blue-collar, predominantly white councilmanic district that wraps like a boomerang around Baltimore's east side. They are women who have been following their political conscience for the past 20 years with an eye toward enriching their communities and electing candidates they believed would do the same.
"We all have to work for good government," says Mary Grubowski, a city school teacher who, at 48, is the youngest in the group. "That may sound Pollyannaish, but if you don't work to get good people in, how responsible can the government be?"
Most of these women got their start in the fight against "The Road" and in the City Council campaign of a social worker named Barbara Mikulski.
They helped bulldoze the highway into oblivion and propel the daughter of a Highlandtown baker into her first elected office.
"One of the reasons we got involved in this was because we felt the government wasn't listening to us in the '60s, that they didn't know what was going on in the neighborhoods," says Mrs. Aull, whose work in the community began with a church-sponsored (( youth group.
"From then on, we didn't stop. Every year we worked for somebody," says Gabrielle "Gay" Holland, a 51-year-old city school teacher who lives two doors away from the Southeast Avenue house in which she was born.
Along the way, they stuffed envelopes and addressed them, knocked on doors and worked the corners, hung signs in windows and handed out ballots.
They drove the elderly to the polls and organized wine and cheese parties for candidates at senior centers.
They registered voters and recruited campaign volunteers.
They sold fund-raising tickets and bought them, too.
Mothers and public school teachers, secretaries and political aides, they were involved when rotting piers and vacant warehouses lined Boston Street, the waterfront thoroughfare in Canton that now boasts half-million-dollar condominiums and town houses.
"All of these women are true Baltimore," says Ms. Mikulski, a U.S. senator. "Our city wouldn't be the same without crab cakes, white marble steps and these great women. When I ran for City Council, they were my neighborhood SWAT team."
And although they may no longer knock on doors or hand out ballots on Election Day -- "working the corners," as they call it -- they characterize the volunteers who drive campaigns and elect candidates, the behind-the-scenes worker bees who cook the Swedish meatballs for the neighborhood fund-raiser, answer the telephones at campaign headquarters, shuttle volunteers to a church hall to get out a mass mailing.
"We prefer to be graybeards than front-line forces," says Mrs. Aull, whose candidacy for the state central committee in 1970 served as a "dry run" for Ms. Mikulski's first campaign.
All but one of the women grew up in the ethnic neighborhoods of the First District where political bosses like Hofferbert, D'Alesandro and Staszak once reigned over a machine that elected councilmen and state central committeemen, delegates and senators.
"As long as you were wheeling and dealing with them, you would maybe get your alley cleaned or your streets swept," said Mrs. Canoles, a 64-year-old medical secretary. "We felt our city representatives should be more than that, they should be making us have better schools . . . fighting crime. You always have to be fighting for what is right in your community."
Back when political machines were flush with "walk-around money," before the state outlawed paying workers on Election ++ Day, these women never accepted a dime for their time.
That's not why they were in it, they say.
"My whole life has been politics, before, during and after my children, and I have five," says Mrs. Canoles, who lives on O'Donnell Street. "I guess when you are always doing dishes, scrubbing floors, taking care of the children's needs, cooking . . . you want to have that feeling that you're needed. To fulfill that need, you go out because your community needs you. You get recognized. You get to be known. It's a fulfilling feeling."
Today, the women still get calls from local candidates -- Mrs. Aull has a note on her refrigerator about addressing envelopes for Perry Sfikas, who is running for a seat on the City Council.
And they still take note of which candidates have signs in their neighbors' windows.
But the tenor of today's politics doesn't excite them much.
"I wish the Democratic Party would be real Democrats again instead of imitation Republicans," says Mrs. Aull.
"There's a lot more advertising done. I don't necessarily see the involvement in the grass-roots level," adds Ms. Grubowski who lives on Fait Avenue, four blocks away from her childhood home. "More often than not when you drive by a candidate's office, the lights are out and there are not community residents addressing envelopes."
But Mary Grubowski knows campaign workers can "outgrow" campaigns.
"I see my involvement changing," she says. "I won't be knocking on the door, but I will be able to help in other ways. I'm past president of two women's organizations. I've been supporting candidates through those two organizations."
She pauses and then says, "But I can also see a time when my back is having trouble. I may be back stuffing envelopes."