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Baltimore poised on hinge of history


For the first time in Baltimore's history, black candidates stand poised to win the top three elected positions in city government. (For most of our history, those spots were held by whites.)

Kurt L. Schmoke won the Democratic nomination for a third term as mayor, turning back a challenge from City Council President Mary Pat Clarke by a surprisingly easy, 20-point margin.

Lawrence A. Bell III became the Democratic nominee for City Council president with 30 percent of the vote. Mr. Bell, who is undefeated in his young political career, beat three of his fellow council members and a fourth challenger.

And Joan M. Pratt, a certified public accountant and local businesswoman, won the nomination for city comptroller in her very first political campaign.

In this heavily Democratic city, winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to victory in November. Thus, coupled with the possibility of a black majority on the City Council, the complexion of Baltimore government stands to get much darker come November.

Most shocking of all, voters rejected the sage advice of this newspaper, which had endorsed Ms. Pratt for comptroller but recommended different candidates for mayor and council president.

So now the fear is that voters saw only skin color when they went into the booth. The precincts with majority black residents tended to support the black candidates. Precincts with large white populations voted for whites. Precincts with mixed populations had mixed results.

Since blacks won, there is talk of a mass exodus of the white middle and working classes; of a panicky desertion by the city's business community. Already, Baltimore is being compared to a Third World satrapy.

Just yesterday, a man stopped me in the street, his face mottled with fear and outrage. "When will we learn to rise above race," he moaned, clutching me by the arm. "When are we going to rise above this ignorance?"

"Do you mean to ask, 'Why can't we all get along?' " I asked.

"That's right," he cried. "Why can't we all get along? When will the healing start?"

Allow me to suggest a good place to begin. We can start by crediting this city's voters -- aye, even the city's black voters -- with basic, common, everyday good sense.

It may be that this city's voters elected the three candidates they thought most qualified for the job for reasons that have little or nothing to do with race.

It may be that Mr. Schmoke, Mr. Bell, and Ms. Pratt won their nominations on merit, even though blacks and whites (and this newspaper) judged their qualifications in markedly different ways.

After all, Mr. Schmoke is regarded by the rest of the country as one of the nation's most successful mayors.

Mr. Bell, although I do not always agree with him, has been a relentless advocate of a stronger police force. Crime, as we all know, is one of voters' most pressing concerns.

And those who have done business with Ms. Pratt have nothing but praise for her professionalism.

It may be that voters who happened to have been black supported candidates who also happened to have been black. Isn't this what we would have assumed had white candidates, riding a wave of white support, swept all three offices Tuesday?

Having said this, there is a racial element to this election -- if not to the vote itself, then to its possible consequences. For instance, there is some truth to the fear that some whites may panic and abandon ship at the sight of so many dark faces at the helm. In city after city, black mayors have had to struggle to keep their cities afloat despite plummeting resources as fleeing whites drained urban communities of a tax base.

And blacks certainly hope that black elected officials will prove more sensitive to their communities' needs than have white officials in the past. We can expect the kind of tug-of-war over priorities and resources that we have had since Baltimore first became a melting pot of different ethnicities.

Our new government officials may have to spend a lot of time reassuring whites while not disappointing blacks. Tough job.

But there is no big secret to learning to get along. The shoe company said it best: You just do it!

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