Changing By Staying The Same

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LaTanya Bailey Jones voted last Tuesday for change -- and for the incumbent, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

She is not altogether pleased with his leadership, but she could not imagine voting for his opponent. The continuing promise of Mr. Schmoke's presence as a black elected official was enough for her.

"I'm part of the black middle class that doesn't want to give up the hope that black leadership of the '70s and '80s will have answers for the problems of the '90s. I decided that if Kurt Schmoke gets a message from this election, that may be all we need," she said.

Just in front of her at the Barclay Elementary School Tuesday evening, 29-year-old Claire E. Acey, who is white, also voted for change, but she picked the challenger, Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

"I'd like to see the city become what it's capable of becoming," said Ms. Acey, who lives in the 3000 block of N. Calvert St. "I like Mayor Schmoke a lot, so it was a difficult decision for me to make. What swayed me was the conclusion that after eight years we needed change."

Even after eight years, though, from the African-American viewpoint, Mr. Schmoke was and is change. History remains heavy insulation from faults. In many parts of the city, voting seemed to track racial makeup: With a population that is 63 percent black, Baltimore gave its black mayor a 60 percent to 40 percent victory. One observer suggested the results looked more like a census than an election.

But more than color was involved in decision-making, as the two Charles Village voters illustrate and as numerous interviews showed outside polling places on Election Day. Race was an undeniably persuasive qualification. But there were striking exceptions to that rule:

* Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III won the Democratic Party nomination for City Council president, winning substantial support in largely white areas, including Northeast Baltimore, where he struck an alliance with Councilman Martin O'Malley.

"We bucked the racial tide. If this had been a year of purely racial voting," Mr. O'Malley said, "Bell would not have won. People have always said it's harder to get white people to cross over and vote for blacks, so we succeeded with the harder end of the salt and pepper shaker."

Mr. Bell's white opponent, 6th District Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, had begun the campaign by baldly asserting he would court white votes only, leaving his opponents to splinter the black vote.

* Though he appeared to invite white voters to support Mrs. Clarke, Mayor Schmoke won significant support in some white precincts.

Just before the election, Larry S. Gibson, the mayor's campaign strategist said: "People underestimated the intelligence of Baltimoreans. "The mayor will do better with white voters than predicted. . . ."

One comparison is illuminating: In the Ashburton neighborhood where Mr. Schmoke lives, turnout was 67 percent, with the mayor getting 88 percent of the votes. In Tuscany-Canterbury, where Mrs. Clarke lives, the turnout was 63 percent, with 77 percent going her way.

* And in the race for comptroller, state Sen. Julian L. "Jack" Lapides, who is white, ran well ahead of Mrs. Clarke, taking more than 46 percent of the vote. Save for the tremendous turnout and its boost for his opponent, Joan Pratt, Mr. Lapides might well have won.

Finally, as the two voters in Charles Village suggest, the process of decision-making in the minds of Baltimore voters was not simply a matter of color.

Both young women said they were concerned about the city's future, anxious to see more opportunity and fewer obstacles to advancement of the poor -- and perplexed by the detached leadership of a mayor they admired.

Admiration for Clarke

Even Ms. Jones saw things to like in Mrs. Clarke.

"Mary Pat has that spark," she said.

Conversely, Mr. Schmoke seems curiously lacking in the sort of "charisma" that works on a mass level, Ms. Jones said -- a striking reality that belies his manifold surface charms.

At the same time, she thought, Mrs. Clarke had "form but no substance," while Mr. Schmoke has "substance but no form."

"Maybe he went to England and lost his charisma," she said of the mayor, whose famous resume includes not only Harvard and Yale but a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University. Her co-workers wondered if the young mayor had not grown weary in the job.

After so many years of exclusion from the political process, after so much struggle for voting rights and economic opportunity, African-American voters may be excused for having patience with African-American leaders, particularly when they come, as Mr. Schmoke did, with so much potential.

"I haven't voted in 10 years," said an older black man on his way into a polling place in Hamilton, "but too many people died to make this possible."

In a time of plummeting support from Washington, Mr. Schmoke's administration pays its bills, won a $100 million federal grant and, finally, found a police chief who seems able to compete with the drug dealers. Eight years into his administration, some of the high-level personnel problems that have been a drag on City Hall are being solved.

But will it matter? Will white and black flight from the city continue, further weakening the tax base, not to speak of the civic talent base? Pre-election polling for this election turned out to be particularly inaccurate. So many whites have left the city since the last census that it skewed model calculations, LTC according to a polling expert. Simply put: The white turnout was lower than expected because there were fewer whites to turn out.

LaTanya Jones hoped the election would send Mr. Schmoke a message, but she wondered a day later if the message might not be a different one than she had hoped: a victory margin of 20 percentage points might legitimately be thought of as a mandate.

If not for racial loyalty, counted on without apology by the Schmoke campaign, a mandate this size would be indisputable.

Some have suggested that Mr. Schmoke get rid of Mr. Larry S. Gibson, the campaign's principal architect and strategist. That idea seemed a bit like advising the Orioles to fire Earl Weaver for being impolite to umpires.

Last Tuesday's results suggest to some that rising white politicians such as Martin O'Malley cannot now aspire to be mayor. Surely, he must point toward the U.S. Congress or to some state post.

"We really had a wonderful summer of working together," Mr. O'Malley said. "It was a positive thing." Can blacks and whites work together on a citywide basis? Maybe, he seemed to say.

Mr. Schmoke gave some indications after his victory that he would respond to the concerns of those who voted against him -- and for him. He said healing was in order. At the same time, he said the city's black majority had sent an even stronger message: It wants to be a full partner in the city's economic and political life.

To whom was that message directed? one might ask. The city has had a black mayor for eight years, after all. Ms. Jones' message to the mayor may well be more on target: However they may have voted finally, people are not satisfied with the state of affairs in Baltimore but they are not willing to give up on dreams that go beyond Kurt L. Schmoke.

For the moment, though, the day was taken roughly with raw power reminiscent of Trenton and Stonewall and Proven, all clubs hailing faintly now from days when Baltimore's white political clubs won and won.

Endangered whites?

If it is true that white candidates are endangered, no better example exists than this year's race for comptroller. Ms. Pratt, a young woman with no political experience, rode organizational support from the Schmoke team and The Sun's endorsement to victory.

She defeated an opponent with more than 30 years of political experience, unrivaled independence and a record of early civil rights activism. Mr. Lapides lost to Ms. Pratt by about 8,000 votes, taking more than 46 percent of the total to her 54 percent. Racial voting certainly helped her, but it was not the first time an untested candidate was hoisted into office by the machine-like exertions of her sponsors.

Even in this, though, some find heartening numbers. Arthur Murphy, campaign coordinator for Mr. Lapides, says crossover voting in this election was as visible as in any earlier year. Mr. Lapides did far better than Mrs. Clarke, for example, in black neighborhoods. But for the huge turnout engineered for the Schmoke-Pratt combine, Mr. Lapides might have won, he says.

And in the future, Mr. Murphy contends, black candidates for citywide office must expect that at least 26 percent of black voters will be not be influenced solely by race.

One of these voters, Michael L. Johnson, was put off by the Schmoke campaign's emphasis on racial loyalty.

"He went into the black community and hoped people would vote for him because he is black," he said.

Mr. Johnson was for Mrs. Clarke: "I could call her when I couldn't get it done elsewhere, and she would get it done," he said.

Now, getting it done will be the winners' job.

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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