Don't ask mayoral candidate Ronald W. Williams how he'd solve Baltimore's problems. He says he knows what to do about poverty and unemployment and homelessness, but he won't reveal details of his platform before Election Day.
"If I disclose my ideas, someone else might take those ideas without giving me compensation," the 30-year-old, unemployed and admittedly broke politician said with a sly smile last week.
Even if Mr. Williams loses the election -- a possibility he only grudgingly acknowledges -- the city would not necessarily be deprived of his vision. For a fee -- Mr. Williams says $300,000 would be an acceptable amount -- he is willing to bestow upon the winner the Williams program for the salvation of Baltimore.
For that price, he adds, he'll throw in his plan to lower auto insurance rates. Gratis.
Something makes them run. Maybe it's a surfeit of ego. Or a yearning for attention. Or a cause that has tapped some internal fount of passion. Whatever it is, they return every four years to nestle there on the Baltimore ballot alongside the Schaefers and Schmokes and Burnses of the world.
They are created by the combustion of electoral politics but are almost always irrelevant to the outcomes. Most do not have enough money to run for hall monitor, let alone campaign for citywide office. Their name recognition, from beginning to end, never rises above that of the cashier at the neighborhood grocery store. Most of them campaign minimally, some of them not at all.
And yet, they will lock eyes with yours and tell you they think they might just take Kurt L. Schmoke's job from him.
"My chances are good," said Sheila Hopkins, who is listed as a Democratic mayoral candidate. "I like the way things are going. I just have a good feeling."
She says this though she has devoted not a single moment to the campaign after going downtown last spring to pay $150 for the privilege of running.
Sitting on a flowered couch in her sister's Northwest Baltimore home, Ms. Hopkins, 40, spoke about her reasons for running. "I'm deeply polarized," she said in wan voice.
In the press, candidates such as Ms. Hopkins and Mr. Williams are dismissed as "not serious," a characteristic that does not take account of their deadly earnestness.
Without question, for example, cabdriver and Democrat Gene L. Michaels has made sacrifices far exceeding those made by the mainstream candidates, Mr. Schmoke, Clarence H. "Du" Burns and William A. Swisher.
Mr. Michaels has drastically reduced his income by cutting back on his cab driving so he could devote himself to his campaign.
To cut his rent in half, he moved into a gloomy, three-room apartment at the rear of a ramshackle house in Hampden. He has also taken to skipping meals while subsisting on vitamins so he can put every available cent into winning the mayoralty.
So far, he has dropped more than $12,000 of his own money into the campaign. Most of his treasury -- an amount the Schmoke campaign might spend in a morning without a second thought -- has gone into printing campaign literature that he hands out to his perplexed passengers.
As for financial contributions, Mr. Michaels says, "An engineering friend of mine gave me 50 bucks, and two other friends gave me $10 each. None of them live in the city."
Recently, Mr. Michaels took out an advertisement in Black Church Magazine offering to address any congregation in the city on the subject of how he would fix the Baltimore public schools within two years. "I got not one single response," he said.
"I can offer my help," he said with exasperation, "but if people don't take it, I can't do anything for them."
His experience as a cabbie and one-time public school art teacher give him unique insight into the city's people and problems, far more than that of his opponents, he says.
"The other candidates combined couldn't carry my paintbrush," he said.
He added, however, that if he won, he would hire Mr. Burns, whom he likes, as a consultant.
And he does believe he can win. "If you have cabbies handing out your literature, you can blanket the city," he said.
bTC "I know from driving this cab that people in the city are unhappy with what's going on. If they see me as the candidate who is 'none of the above,' I will win."
Mr. Michaels' main interest is in educational improvements. Other candidates are even more focused. Republican mayoral candidate Dan Hiegel, an unemployed man living in Govans, is running on what can only be described as a racist platform.
"I'm proposing that the media stop pretending that the blacks aren't the harmers or murderers of white people, and also that interracial robbery be regarded as a hate crime," he said evenly.
Perennial LaRouche candidate and Democrat John Ascher is hammering away on the crime issue, hoping to attract votes with criticism of Mayor Schmoke's proposal to decriminalize drugs. Republican William E. Roberts, who lost a son to drugs and now has a daughter addicted to them, also is speaking exclusively about crime and violence.
Mr. Roberts, a gentle, 64-year-old dressed elegantly in white shirt, tie and suspenders, said he realizes his chances of unseating Mr. Schmoke are negligible. Even if he doesn't win, though, he is hoping to draw attention to the idea that drugs have overwhelmed Baltimore.
"There wouldn't be anybody talking to me now if I weren't running for mayor," he said. "I'd be just another voice in the wilderness."
His voice pierced that wilderness earlier this year when he gained a measure of fame by videotaping drug traffickers in his West Baltimore neighborhood. For those efforts, he says, he he has received threats, creating another need for him to try to grab the spotlight.
"High visibility, that's my protection now," said the one-time insurance salesman, stevedore and bellhop who is now at work on a novel. So he festoons his West Walbrook row house with garish banners bearing his name and cruises the neighborhood in his white Cadillac Seville while blaring his campaign message through speakers mounted on top.
Mr. Williams' campaign has been far less noticeable. The former Army private has a single piece of campaign literature. "Ronald Williams for Mayor," says the photocopied sheet. Below that it says, "Due to the limited quantity of literature, I asked that it be passed around for others to read."
Mr. Williams has raised no money for the campaign and has spent about the same. The city waived his filing fee because of his claim that he was indigent. He has worked as a cook and in a laundry but said he has not held a job for some time. He believes Mr. Schmoke is "brilliant, smart, intelligent" and holds out no promise that "I can do any better than he can."
He will not go into detail about his proposals but promises to give $2,000 to everyone 21 and over ("for pain and suffering"), housing to all the homeless and free medical care to the elderly. He won't say where he would get the money, although it wouldn't be from property taxes. He would eliminate those.
He is running, he said with a self-conscious smile, because "God spoke to me and told me to. I could hear him just like I'm hearing you. He said, 'Run for mayor of Baltimore. I'm with you all the way.' "
Now he's doing just that and is as proud as he can be about it. "I've got more guts than any other 30-year-old in Baltimore," he said. "I'm running for mayor."