Republican Alan L. Keyes found a symbol for his U.S. Senate campaign last week at a housing project for the elderly in Fells Point across the street from the home of his opponent, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
Federal housing officials want to close the prayer chapel at Lemko House on South Ann Street. They said they are obliged to preserve the constitutionally mandated separation between church and state. Mr. Keyes had his doubts.
Once again, he said, bureaucratic rigidity was robbing people of their rights, destroying confidence in government. What Americans need -- what liberals such as Senator Mikulski have stolen from them, he says -- is sufficient power to guarantee individual rights and to preserve faith in the future.
"This may look like a little issue," Mr. Keyes said, "but it's not. It's a very big issue. There are so many things where government has to play a role. We need to have community control. We need block grants. But does that mean no prayer, no chapel, no nothing? It's crazy."
The candidate's quick foray into enemy territory was meant to dramatize basic themes of his second run for the U.S. Senate: neighborhood control, "empowerment" of people and a reining in of the "monstrous" central government in Washington.
"If you wanted a meeting of a gay-lesbian pride club, that's OK," Mr. Keyes told a committee of Lemko House residents, because religion is not involved. Prayer, though, is out.
Mr. Keyes is writing a letter to a political friend, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack F. Kemp, asking him to save the chapel. Ms. Mikulski also wants to save it.
Mr. Keyes' chapel visit dramatizes a contradictory undercurrent. By attacking government and incumbency, he is in danger of attacking a national administration run by his own party for the past 12 years.
Mr. Keyes holds that a liberal-run Congress is more to blame for governmental gridlock. But he does not excuse the GOP.
"If there are people in the Republican Party whose interest is served by the maintenance of this huge bureaucratic structure," Mr. Keyes says, "then I'm at odds with them too. I don't mind saying so."
There is not much, apparently, that the fiery candidate has ever minded saying.
A man of great confidence, edging toward arrogance, Mr. Keyes has an oratorical style that is powerful but pugnacious and shrill. His texts are laced with critical references to liberals and to the legacy of slavery in America. The 42-year-old black conservative is the son of a career Army man, and his early years may have been prologue to his eventual career in the foreign service. Born in New York City, he lived in Italy for a time, spent two years at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Baltimore and went to high school in Texas.
Mr. Keyes seems more willing than most politicians to take chances, to think in ways that require radical departure, to challenge voters as well as to court them.
At a luncheon meeting in Elkton, he is asked if reduced government spending on social programs troubles him. The questioner is clearly a fan of these programs.
Mr. Keyes is not.
"I question whether spending money does any good," he says. "Seventy percent of it washes around in the federal bureaucracy. I want to eliminate the middleman and shift money back to the local level."
He would dare, he says, to reduce some entitlement programs, including Social Security. If that seems impolitic, he says, it is only because America and its leaders have lost their way.
"We have to re-examine the country we have become," he says. "Our problems could be addressed if we had representatives with courage to act as if they cared about the future of the country as much as they care about their careers."
In recent years, Alan Keyes has gone to war verbally against an array of adversaries ranging from his party to backers of Anita Hill, the University of Oklahoma law professor who accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Justice Thomas and Mr. Keyes are friends.
When Ms. Hill's defenders insisted they couldn't imagine what incentive she would have to lie about her former boss, Mr. Keyes said he could.
What about a Swiss bank account?
"I was just saying it was a possibility. Anything could have happened, including someone offering to put a little money in a bank account if she would only do X,Y or Z. I didn't say it happened."
Others might have allowed such a speculation to go unspoken. But even when people are agreeing with him, Alan Keyes is pressing his points. ("He can't take 'yes' for an answer," one party member said.)
"He's always enjoyed public argument," says William Kristol, a -- friend of 20 years who is chief aide to Vice President Dan Quayle. "He's a little different from your normal politician who probably thinks first of compromise, avoiding difficult issues, smoothing over difficult problems."
As a challenger in this year of anti-incumbent sentiment, Mr. Keyes may have diminished his advantage by taking an $8,500-per-month salary from campaign funds. He has since attributed the reaction to hostile newspapers which, he says, are subservient to Democratic politicians in Maryland.
Ken Ramsey, a Westinghouse employee, voted for Mr. Keyes in 1988. But he's not sure if he will this year because of the salary.
"It brings up the question of ethics," Mr. Ramsey tells the candidate during a campaign swing through the Westinghouse plant in Odenton.
"No, it doesn't," Mr. Keyes interrupts, saying he deserves a decent salary. "What's unethical? What's illegal about it? Historically, campaign funds have been used in this way. . . ."
Mr. Ramsey counters that "$8,500 a month" is "an extraordinary salary for the average working person."
Mr. Keyes explains. He made $300,000 before entering the race. He took a 60 percent pay cut to run. He is paying himself the amount he would have made as a U.S. senator before the Senate gave itself a pay raise.
He tells his audiences he is driven to run by the fear that America will fall into steep decline at a time when some black Americans, including his own children, are poised to claim its promise.
"My people just got to the table," he says. "I'm not going to see it torn down before dinner is served."
All of this has been, to say the least, a distraction from the fundamental issues of the campaign -- empowering people, dethroning liberals. Those objectives have been at the center of his thinking for years, Mr. Keyes says.
In 1988, while campaigning against Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes for the U.S. Senate, he walked through Baltimore neighborhoods in search of votes and found a rising tide of frustration and anger -- including his own. Though rushed into the race late, after the GOP primary winner withdrew, Mr. Keyes drew 617,537 votes to 999,166 for Mr. Sarbanes.
To win he must attract black voters, most of them Democrats. The strategy takes him into the heart of constituencies owned by Democrats in Maryland for generations, spanning even the 12 years of the so-called Reagan revolution. Mr. Sarbanes took heavily black and heavily Democratic Baltimore by a margin of 175,059 to 44,231.
Political bondage, says Mr. Keyes.
"We shouldn't be bought and sold like slaves on some political auction block. . . . This is a critical election for black voters who have been essentially betrayed by the way politics are conducted in Maryland," he says.
His choice of community empowerment as the pivotal issue is of considerable significance for Ms. Mikulski, who began as a social worker and activist on the streets of East Baltimore. The job she started, he says, is not finished.
"We need a coalition to do something about the tragedy out there on the street, and we're going to get it," he said, slamming his fist on the table during a recent interview. "I have just seen enough of it. We have experienced enough of it. The blood has run in just about every black family. It's going to stop."
He proposes a radical new system of government whose essential building block is the neighborhood. He would form elected neighborhood councils and give them taxing authority. That sort of power, he says, would restore confidence and a stake in the community. Just how such a unit of government would fit in the system, he does not say, admitting that his proposal is sketchy.
"Everything that is wrong in the country is traceable to dissolution of family and neighborhood," he says.
Mr. Kristol says the Keyes repertoire, fireworks notwithstanding, includes healing, a task the candidate says he can accomplish.
"For all those [conservatives] who supported me in 1988, I now offer the prospect of a new and powerful ally, awakening voters in the urban areas of the state," he says.
Next Sunday: The Democratic candidate, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.