At first glance, the four major candidates for president of the Baltimore City Council seem indistinguishable. All are seasoned council members. Each wants safer streets, better schools and more jobs.
Up close, though, what each stresses says a lot about where he or she hopes to take the city's council.
Vera P. Hall, the current council vice president, says improved public safety will make Baltimore better. Mrs. Hall, who has the support of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, also is seen as helping to continue Schmoke administration policies.
Carl Stokes, Lawrence A. Bell III and Joseph J. DiBlasi are administration critics, chiding the mayor, and by implication Mrs. Hall.
The three men also have found their personal spin on the issues.
Mr. Stokes, from the 2nd District, cites education as his first priority. He has been a constant critic of Education Alternatives Inc., the controversial, Minnesota-based private firm that manages the city schools.
Mr. Bell, who is from the 4th District, counts drug-related crime as the top issue. Mr. Bell also has been closely aligned with council President Mary Pat Clarke, who is running for mayor. The alliance could make for strong mayor-council relations if Mrs. Clarke wins.
Mr. DiBlasi, who is from the 6th District, has found himself on opposite sides from both mayoral candidates on such several key issues as the recent phase-out of the beverage container tax.
In this campaign, Mr. DiBlasi promises to reform the Board of Estimates, reducing the number of voting members from five to three to end the mayor's control of the panel. Only the comptroller, mayor and council president would be permitted to vote.
Shelton J. Stewart Jr. is the fifth candidate running for the presidency. He is a former city sheriff. In 1988, Mr. Stewart surrendered the office after he was convicted in Baltimore County of trying to prevent the state prosecutor's probe of election-law violations in the city.
Mrs. Hall comes into the race with the backing of at least eight council members.
Maintaining their support beyond the campaign would be crucial. If Mrs. Hall can keep that block intact, she would be virtually guaranteed of winning a majority on the 18-member council for important votes.
Mrs. Hall is a former elementary school teacher and a director of state relations for Morgan State University. Currently vice president of the council and chair of the Housing Committee, Mrs. Hall was first elected to the 5th District in 1987.
"My first responsibility is public safety," Mrs. Hall said. "I don't think that it is just about putting more police on the street, although that is a part of it. I want to engage the entire community, clergy, community leaders and elected officials."
Mrs. Hall said community-based policing would help stunt crime. "If you look at the map of crime [in the city], it looks like a spider with legs and we have to take away the center."
On education, Mrs. Hall said she would steer legislation toward after-school care programs. When the school day ends, Mrs. Hall wants the children to put down their books and participate in recreational activities, take field trips, learn about music, "so they won't be in houses and watching television all the time."
For Mr. Stokes, education is his primary campaign issue.
Mr. Stokes has charged that EAI milked Baltimore schools for more than $6 million in profits without boosting student achievement and has called for the city to end its school management contract.
Though the city maintains its controversial contract with EAI, Mr. Stoke's out-front criticism has won him greater name recognition throughout the city.
Mr. Stokes was first elected into council in 1987 after an unsuccessful campaign four years earlier. He also ran for the House of Delegates in the 45th District in 1986. Mr. Stokes is a Baltimore native, reared in one of the city's housing projects and is a graduate of Loyola College.
"I am for privatization in schools, but let's not fritter away millions of dollars while our children still struggle," Mr. Stokes said. "I want more site-based management in schools."
Mr. Stokes said he wants to raise teacher salaries but also will work to rid schools of ineffective teachers. "There are [teachers] that ought not to be in those classes, ought not to be around our young children," he said.
Mr. Stokes said he will focus on restoring the manufacturing base back to Baltimore.
"Baltimore is not a business-friendly town," Mr. Stokes said. "I want people to realize manufacturing jobs have not left the country, they have just relocated to other places."
At 33, Mr. Bell is the youngest of the candidates. On council since 1987, he may be the candidate with the best name recognition.
He has become one of the most prolific council members, introducing legislation that deals with crime or affirmative action. The chair of the Public Safety subcommittee, he is known for speedily introducing legislation -- a trait critics say shows he doesn't think through issues.
In 1988, after a series of shootings and a rape in city schools, Mr. Bell wanted school officials to take a mobile metal detector from school to school in random, unannounced appearances. Other council members balked, calling Mr. Bell's action noteworthy, but premature because it would undermine the school superintendent's authority.
"My greatest strength is that I have a sense or urgency," Mr. Bell said.
While in council he has backed gun control laws, supported stiffer penalties for drug dealers and most recently fought for the juvenile curfew.
Mr. Bell says he will work to increase police pay and wants more police officers on the streets.
Mr. Bell also said he is troubled by the number of native Baltimoreans who don't speak English well. He said that he would like to start mandatory English language classes.
Additionally, he said that schools should teach skills for parents, enforce dress codes and establish an alternative site for disruptive children that is modeled after military boot camp.
Mr. DiBlasi is the most seasoned of the candidates, having been elected to council in 1983.
On the campaign trail, Mr. DiBlasi, the lone white candidate, answers critics who say he hopes to be elected by the split black vote.
"I've heard it, everybody hears it," Mr. DiBlasi said. "But I filed first. October 6, 1994. Everyone knew that I was in the middle of the ring and they are challenging me. I am not playing the race card."
Mr. DiBlasi, from the predominantly black 6th District, has not avoiding black sections of the city. But he is campaigning hard in white enclaves of the city, including Hampden in the 4th District and Mount Washington in the 5th District.
"I'm concentrating on the south, southwest, east and northeast section of Baltimore right now," Mr. DiBlasi said.
Mr. DiBlasi, a former vice president of Maryland National Corp. and co-chair of Budget and Appropriations Committee, says crime and education are his biggest campaign issues. He has added foot patrol officers to the street and says he wants more.
On education, Mr. DiBlasi said he wants to bring back truant officers and employ more well-trained school police.
"I want to begin alternative schools for disruptive students, even if we have to restructure the old reform schools," Mr. DiBlasi said.
Mr. DiBlasi also said that he aims to focus on economic development.