Who's on second depends on who's making the rules


If there were a First Rule of Politics, it would probably be this: Never answer the telephone at your campaign headquarters on the first ring.

If you do, it indicates that the people there have a little too much time on their hands and that they are answering calls a little too eagerly.

"Hello?" Bill Swisher said.

That is Bill Swisher answering the phone at his campaign headquarters on the first ring.

And if there were a Second Rule of Politics it would probably be: Never have the candidate answer the telephone himself. It indicates that maybe he can't find anyone else to answer the telephone.

"Well," Swisher said when I confronted him with my two rules, "the other line is busy and the people love it when they call and get me."

Which is why there aren't really any rules to politics. You get to make up the rules as you go along. And if Swisher should actually win the Democratic primary for mayor on Sept. 12, he could always say: "And I owe it all to the fact I answered the phone myself and on the first ring!"

Not that he is exactly practicing his victory speech. But the reason I called Swisher is that the Kurt Schmoke campaign had just dubbed him their No. 1 contender.

What about Du Burns? you ask. Forget it, says the Schmoke campaign. The guy to beat is now Swisher.

"Yes, that is true," Larry Gibson, Schmoke's campaign manager, told me yesterday. "Swisher is running a much more effective campaign than Burns. He is grabbing the headlines better. And, at least in some parts of the city, he has a greater visibility. I did my Sunday drive-around and that confirmed it."

Gibson drives around the city on Sundays looking for bumper stickers, window signs and posters. He drives around to find out which candidates are hot and which are not.

"And that confirmed what I have suspected," Gibson said. "Swisher is someone we have to keep our eye on."

Does Gibson have any polling data to indicate Swisher is really running second to Schmoke?

Well, Gibson will not talk about polling data. He will say, however, that "other information that comes to our attention indicates that Swisher is probably our principal challenger."

To which I say: Maybe. And then again: Maybe not.

I do not suggest that Larry Gibson would tell an untruth. I suggest only that in political campaigns there are all kinds of truths and some truths are more convenient than others.

And having Bill Swisher as the principal contender is very convenient to Kurt Schmoke.

That is because Swisher is white and Schmoke and Burns are both black. And if some black voters really believed that a split in the black vote might allow a white candidate to gain victory, they might decide they could not afford to split their votes.

In earlier interviews, Gibson said that the pattern of voting around the United States in circumstances where blacks might split their votes is that "black voters tend to coalesce around the stronger black candidate." In this case, that would be Schmoke.

One hopes, of course, for a day when race does not matter in politics. And when Baltimore is declared not just an All-America City, but part of Disney World, that day will be here. As for now, one must deal with such things.

And so how does Bill Swisher, whom we have left hanging on the phone for some time now, deal with it? Firstly, does he believe he is really No. 2?

"Yes," Swisher said firmly. "Du's campaign is flat. He's wasting his money and the campaign is not going anywhere. He comes across as a real nice guy -- which he is -- but he's too nostalgic. But I don't pick on him. I spend my time concentrating on Schmoke."

And what do your polls show?

"I don't have money for polls and I don't believe in them, anyway," Swisher said, "but I hear rumors that somebody has a poll showing me 10 points behind Schmoke. That's just a rumor."

The last poll results I got hold of, commissioned by the Maryland Democratic Party and conducted in the last week of June, showed Schmoke with 61 percent, Burns with 20 percent, and Swisher with 6 percent. There was a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

So if Swisher has not only leapfrogged Burns but has come relatively close to Schmoke -- and we do not know if this is so -- what could account for it?

People think Schmoke has a nice smile, but nobody knows what the hell he is saying," Swisher said. "He uses these big words and people don't understand it. Oh, in some parts of the black community he's still the Golden Boy, but he's lost the support of big business and big law firms. He's also lost the support of city employees, teachers, firemen, the little guys.

"The little guys have got new bosses making $70,000 a year and they don't know their jobs. We could probably save $10 million [in city government] by firing 100 people."

Swisher said his three big issues are law and order, real estate taxes and schools. He also says he is mak ing no appeals based on race. "So I'm white, what's the big deal?" he says. "If I run up the middle [by splitting the black community between Schmoke and Burns], fine. If they run up the middle, fine. It's 1991 now and we've got to stop this racial stuff."

Swisher figures his campaign will spend from $100,000 to $125,000 on the primary, which is a small amount these days. But to see how smart he really is, I asked him how much of his own money he is investing in the campaign. That's because the Third Rule of Politics might be: Never stick your own dough in the pot.

"Oh, I have some money in the campaign," he said. "But I had bypass surgery two years ago and my law practice went way down. It's a struggle to be honest. I know some bartenders, they're making $700 a week, and they complain if you don't leave a big tip. And I'm making maybe $300 a week! If that!"

So why run at all? I asked. Why risk anything on such a long-shot campaign?

"It's an honor to run for mayor and be a viable candidate," Swisher said. "And, hey, only two things can happen to you: You win or you lose. You don't get shot at sunrise."

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