In politics, Morrell Park crowd knows who it likes, and likes who it knows


For 25 years, Jim Brown and his buddies have gotten together at the American Legion Post in Morrell Park to have a few beers and note the succession of births, weddings and deaths that are among the few signs of change in a neighborhood of rambling, shingled houses nestled in a quiet corner of Southwest Baltimore.

Generations of families have lived in Morrell Park. Only a few businesses along the neighborhood's commercial strip on Washington Boulevard have closed. Major crimes are so few that people feel safe enough to fall asleep on their porches after dinner.

And the mention of politics still triggers fiery debate.

"This neighborhood has always been a hotbed for politics," said Mr. Brown, 62, an Army veteran who jokes that he was stationed near Paris during the Korean War. "You have people that have gone out for years working on the corners on Election Day and volunteering for different candidates."

Recently, with the Sept. 12 primary looming, Mr. Brown and his friends were once again gathered around a table in the dimly lighted Legion hall, tucked at the bottom of a hill off Washington Boulevard. And after drinking a toast to a recently deceased member, conversation turned to political campaigns past and present, to the governors and mayors, the councilmen and ward heelers, the bosses and precinct captains who have come and gone.

For example, Joanne Schlueter remembers that when she moved to Morrell Park as a "country girl" from Garrett County, a neighborhood boy named Paul E. Weisengoff stopped the other kids from teasing her about her accent. Hers is one vote Mr. Weisengoff, now a member of the House of Delegates, doesn't have to worry about.

"He made me feel so welcome," says Ms. Schlueter, "and since then I've just stuck with him."

In Morrell Park, they cling to the traditions and politicians they know. This year, the council race in the 6th District, which includes Morrell Park, is dominated by a contest between two tickets -- one all-white and the other all-black.

At American Legion Post 137, they make no bones about which way they're leaning. But they say the question is one of loyalty, not race.

"It's not that other candidates aren't qualified, but we have to go with what we know," says Mr. Brown, who is supporting the re-election of incumbents Edward L. Reisinger III, Joseph J. DiBlasi and Timothy D. Murphy. "We can't go for the grab bag."

"I remember I wanted to have this stump removed from my street because this little old lady almost tripped on it and broke her neck," said Mark Copperthite, 29, a volunteer firefighter and paramedic who stopped by the post for a beer. "Well, I called down to City Hall and the next couple of days they had someone out there digging it up."

"We usually go to our councilmen to get things done around here, so that's the most important race," said Ms. Schlueter, who usually walks the streets with candidates. But because of a recent back injury, she says she'll "be making a lot of phone calls from my easy chair with a heating pad."

Lee Dougherty, the mild-mannered commander of the post who had sat silently for most of the evening, abruptly chimed in to say he'd be voting for former Mayor Clarence H. "Du" Burns, who is trying to recapture the office from Kurt L. Schmoke.

"He's just a regular guy, and I think he's got the best background," said Mr. Dougherty, a Baltimore County bus driver. "Maybe I always vote for losers, but I'm going to support him again."

Mr. Brown held his tongue. But earlier, he lavishly praised Mayor Schmoke for many improvements in the neighborhood and said he would vote for him.

He said Mr. Schmoke had blocked the installation of a medical waste incinerator in the neighboring community of Lakeland and allowed the community to name its park after their late neighbor and Little League benefactor Warren L. Fitzberger -- something they lobbied for unsuccessfully when Gov. William Donald Schaefer was mayor.

But there is a dark side to the park. "Sometimes the kids come there after the bar closes and they are so rowdy," said Rose Rohleder, who stopped by the table after her women's auxiliary meeting at the hall.

"The other day, you know what I found?" she asked, looking in the eyes of each person seated at the table. "I found a syringe and a piece of gauze with blood on it in my front yard. I don't know if it was from a drug addict or maybe someone who needed to take medication, but it made me feel funny."

"You see, there are drugs in Morrell Park," said Pat Dougherty, slamming her beer on the table. "Things are changing."

The residents' ambivalence to change has revealed itself in issues since the 1960s, when the community fought construction of a 250-unit apartment complex. And over the last few years, many residents petitioned against the new baseball stadium in Camden Yards, about two miles away.

"People are afraid that the stadium will bring a lot more people through the community," said Ted Jarkiewicz. "They are concerned not only about the traffic, but all the attention that might be focused on the community.

"Morrell Park has pretty much been a low-key community -- sort of a sleepy hollow. Suddenly we're going to be more visible and more patronized, and it's making people nervous."

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