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Political clubs losing power, appeal


Baltimore's political clubs once served as social scenes, political forums and employment agencies providing patronage jobs.

Today, the clubs that once launched the city's most powerful politicians no longer wield such influence, but their presence still will be felt at the polls in Tuesday's primary elections as club members pass out ballots of preferred candidates and escort voters to the polls.

The Eastside Democratic Organization, founded in 1966, will be out in force "manning every polling place and going through the neighborhoods," said founding member Hattie N. Harrison, who has been a member of the House of Delegates for 22 years.

Her club, which endorsed Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Vera Hall for city council president, will also use volunteers called "flushes" who go door to door flushing out people to make sure they vote.

In South Baltimore, the members of the Stonewall Democratic Club -- a fixture for more than 100 years -- will be in every precinct passing out tickets of preferred candidates Mary Pat Clarke for mayor and Joseph DiBlasi for City Council president.

State Sen. George W. Della, who has been a member for 30 years, remembers the club from his childhood when he traveled the city's political circles with his late father, also a state senator.

"We'd go to church, get our shoes shined and go to political meetings," he said, recalling bull roasts, crab feasts, dances and political rallies of past decades where women were relegated to the club's auxiliary.

"People may have acquired their jobs through the Stonewall Democratic Club -- courthouse jobs, political appointments. Patronage was the way business was done," he said.

But years after a civil service system replaced most patronage jobs in City Hall, Mr. Della said he thinks the club serves a vital purpose in South Baltimore politics.

"We have gone out of our way to attract new people and in attracting new people, we have brought new people to elective office," he said, noting that some of the group's most active members today are women.

In Northwest Baltimore, Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, remembers a time more than two decades ago when the Trenton Democratic Club was a fixture in the 5th councilmanic district with weekly meetings.

Today, said Mr. Rosenberg, who has been in the state legislature for 13 years, candidates don't need the backing of political clubs as they once did because they raise their own money and communicate with voters through sophisticated mass mailing.

"You can do a mailing to people over 60 if you want to target the elderly. You can do mailing to prime voters -- people who have voted in last two or three primaries," he said.

"Who has resources to pay for the mailings and the election day ballots and to have volunteers manning the polls? Those who have money -- the candidates," he said.

Although Mr. Rosenberg and other politicians say political clubs have lost their influence over the decades, Barbara Green said she thinks they have value.

In 1987, the Northeast Baltimore resident and several political friends, founded a political club, called the 43/44 Democratic Club, to fill the gap they felt from traditional clubs dominated by white men.

"We felt that we wanted an organization that would be a voice in democracy," she said, noting that her racially integrated group began with 18 members and now has 50.

They raised $7,000 to $8,000 this year at a fund-raiser in early summer, giving money to charities and to preferred candidates, including Mayor Schmoke, Ms. Hall and Comptroller candidate Julian L. Lapides.

In the meantime, the old clubs in Northeast Baltimore that Ms. Green's group found unfriendly to newcomers are on the wane, said State Sen. John A. Pica Jr.

"Most of these organizations are on a life-sustaining machine," said Mr. Pica of the old Coggins-O'Malley organization and the United Third District Democratic Organization. "You don't get the same type of enthusiasm as they once did," he said.

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