Callahan seems confident he'll be the mayor again Unions, blacks among supporters


It's a gorgeous autumn Saturday, but former high school and semipro quarterback Dennis Callahan isn't throwing for touchdowns. He's out trying to score points with voters.

Leaflets in hand, the former Annapolis mayor knocks on doors in Eastport, the racially and economically mixed neighborhood -Z where he lives.

"Hi, I'm Dennis Callahan, former mayor and running again for mayor," he says.

Many residents immediately recognize the man who some say was one of Annapolis' most successful mayors, albeit one of its most controversial.

"Is there anything you'd like to ask me or anything you'd like to tell me?" Mr. Callahan asks the voters.

Some residents complain of rising property taxes. Gleefully, Mr. Callahan explains his plan to link property tax increases to the consumer price index and to halt property tax increases for senior citizens who have lived in the city more than 20 years.

"We need someone to do something about crime," one resident suggests.

"I'm glad you mentioned that," Mr. Callahan replies, and outlines his plan for increasing police foot patrols and improving salaries and benefits for police officers.

Just days before the election, Mr. Callahan, 52, is confident of regaining the post he lost to Alfred A. Hopkins by 181 votes in a primary defeat four years ago. He is running as an independent in the three-way race between the Democratic incumbent and Republican Laurance Vincent.

Mr. Callahan is a man who some believed could be governor. But, after he lost his seat as mayor and was defeated in the county executive primary in 1990, some now question whether he has any political future at all.

Former Mayor Roger "Pip" Moyer, who once supported Mr. Callahan and now backs Mr. Hopkins, said that Mr. Callahan is "extremely talented" but that it is doubtful that he can be elected again.

Del. John C. Astle, a District 30 Democrat who frequently clashed with Mr. Callahan, agreed. "I don't think he has a real strong chance of winning. I think he's polished up the package, but I don't think he has changed."

Mr. Callahan's fight against drugs made him a nationally known, small-city mayor. He even was invited to speak on a Ted Koppel television special, although he never made it on camera.

During his term, he battled the corrupt head of the city's Housing Authority, reduced property taxes, improved the city's finances and promoted minorities in city government.

"I enjoyed being the mayor more than anything I ever did in my life," he says.

Despite his intellect and talent, Mr. Callahan had no taste for consensus politics.

He refused to work with some members of the city council and couldn't get along with the city's state delegation. Many saw him as an arrogant publicity hound.

"I was never clear what his goals were beyond ego satisfaction," said state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, a former Callahan supporter who now backs Mr. Hopkins. "He tried to be the Lone Ranger instead of working cooperatively."

Alderman Theresa DeGraff, a Ward 7 Republican with whom he frequently clashed, is praying that he won't regain his seat. "He was always calling me an irrational little girl," Ms. DeGraff complained. "He was mean."

In 1988, a year before his re-election bid, Mr. Callahan tried to tone down his style, and he made a $100 bet with Alderman Carl O. Snowden that he would stay out of controversy.

Both say they can't remember whether the bet was paid, but the controversy didn't end.

The city ethics commission investigated Mr. Callahan's appearance in a health club advertisement; his elite drug fighting police unit was embroiled in controversy; and city council members complained when he didn't tell the council about his plans for establishing a scholarship fund for high school students.

Tired of the bickering, voters turned to "Gentle Al" Hopkins, a white-haired, affable Annapolis native who had served on the city council for 24 years.

It was not easy for Mr. Callahan to accept defeat at the hands of the unassuming Mr. Hopkins. Competitive by nature, and never one to be humble, Mr. Callahan was used to being a winner.

When he was in the sixth grade, he marched confidently into Baltimore's Downtown YMCA and entered a speech contest. He tied for first and was rewarded by being named Baltimore City Council president for a day.

Throughout school, he starred on sports teams, quarterbacking the City College High School football team, throwing the discus in track. He tried out for the Colts and jokes that the worst mistake then-Coach Don Shula ever made was turning him down. Unable to make the pros, he played semiprofessional football for the Baltimore Eagles until he was 30. Mr. Callahan had a golden touch in business, founding two companies -- Maryland Medical Laboratory, a medical diagnostic firm, and Tuxedo International. He since has sold them both and now manages Spa Creek Marina, which he keeps an eye on through the windows of his waterfront town home.

Today, Mr. Callahan still exudes the spirit of a quarterback, although he struggles to be a team player.

"The leopard can't change his spots, but mine at least have faded," he said.

Mr. Snowden blames Mr. Callahan's troubles on political naivete and being an outsider. He says the former mayor's accomplishments outweigh his failures. "His strength was clearly his integrity, his intelligence, and his decisiveness. If he gave you his word, you could count on it."

Since declaring his candidacy in January, Mr. Callahan has, for the most part, managed to stay out of trouble. There was a brief flap over the location of the Anne Arundel jail, and the question of whether Mr. Callahan promised voters that it would be stopped. Mr. Callahan denies he said it, reporters insist he did.

And C. James Lowthers, secretary-treasurer of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400, which represents the city's police, contends that Mr. Callahan has interfered with police contract negotiations.

But some opponents say that Mr. Callahan appears to have changed. "It seems like Dennis has mellowed," said Alderman John Hammond, a Ward 1 Republican who opposed Mr. Callahan on most issues.

Mr. Callahan has won endorsements from three of the city's four employee unions, which are disgruntled with the Hopkins administration over protracted contract negotiations.

Tom Newquist, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3406, representing public works employees, said workers always felt that they could talk with Mr. Callahan. "When there was a problem, he would take care of it," he said.

"We had fairly good pay raises under him," added Lt. John Morgan, president of the firefighters' union.

But the police union has withheld its endorsement in the race. Although frustrated by the current administration, union officials recall past run-ins with Mr. Callahan, who once said that a union chief wore more jewelry than his wife.

Mr. Callahan also appears to have strong support in the black community. Several African-American ministers are urging their congregations to vote for Mr. Callahan and are lining up buses to take residents to the polls.

"I think the black vote could make a differences," said the Rev. John R. Williams, head of Mount Moriah AME Church, which Mr. Callahan frequently attends.

Mr. Williams is urging people to vote for Mr. Callahan. "He has a sensitivity to people," Mr. Williams said. "He is at home in the black community. He's like he's one of us."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad