GOP absentees hoist Culotta into mayoral ring again


Neither rain, nor snow nor dark of night can keep Samuel A. Culotta, Baltimore's perennial Republican mayoral candidate, from his appointed round with Democrat Kurt L. Schmoke this November.

In fact, the 67-year-old attorney should thank the U.S. Postal Service for his victory in the GOP primary election. After finishing Thursday in a virtual neck-and-neck tie with challengers Bruce K. Price and Joseph A. Scalia, Mr. Culotta received a welcome surprise in the mail: absentee ballots that favored him overwhelmingly.

The Republican absentees counted yesterday contained 182 votes for Mr. Culotta, 98 for Mr. Scalia and 93 for Mr. Price, giving Mr. Culotta a 50-vote margin of victory.

While election officials have still to count 10 absentees deliberately set aside until Wednesday -- the deadline for ballots with a Sept. 12 postmark to arrive -- Mr. Culotta's lead appears to be insurmountable.

"You never know about an election," said Mr. Culotta, a Clifton Park resident who has been the Republican mayoral nominee in every election since 1975. "They say 24 hours is a lifetime in politics. This is how it works."

The Democratic absentee ballots counted yesterday did not change the outcome of any race. In all, the city's election board has so far received 2,832 absentee votes: 2,323 from Democrats, 522 from Republicans and 9 from Independents.

While picking a Republican candidate for mayor in overwhelmingly Democratic Baltimore is something akin to choosing a lobster from the tank at Giant -- both are likely to be headed for hot water -- there was a genuine air of excitement at the city's board of election supervisors yesterday morning.

About 50 people, nearly all of whom were Republicans, waited as office staff opened the ballots and fed them into a computerized scanner. A task that would have taken three days in years past, according to administrator Barbara E. Jackson, took less than two hours.

GOP activists attributed Mr. Culotta's come-from-behind win to his name recognition and support from longtime Republicans, including many of the election judges, who cast their votes by absentee ballots.

Mr. Price, who entered the morning with a 39-vote lead but ended up in second place, took the results gracefully: "If I had to do it all over again, maybe I'd have visited election judges at home personally," he said. "I realize this is part of life. I've been here before."

Mr. Scalia, a 27-year-old law school graduate, said that his

first-time campaign helped "get the party rejuvenated."

Nevertheless, the occasion gave Republicans a chance to crow about their tight mayoral primary and the attention it received. Four years ago Mr. Culotta garnered only 22 percent of the vote against Mr. Schmoke in the general election, but supporters claim their candidate has a legitimate chance this time around even though registered Democrats continue to outnumber Republicans by a 9-1 margin.

"We may have the same candidate, but that doesn't mean we'll have the same results," said David Blumberg, chairman of the city's Republican central committee. "There are a lot of dissatisfied Democrats we have to reach."

After winning his party's nomination yesterday, Mr. Culotta threw down the gauntlet at Mr. Schmoke.

The Republican vowed to "Schmoke" out the mayor for a debate before November. "I extend to him the same offer I did four years ago. If he can't go to a debate, give me [campaign manager Larry S.] Gibson," he said.

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