A. ROBERT Kaufman stood in front of the Motor Vehicle Administration building at Mondawmin Mall, his cap nattily ensconced atop his head, looking quite dapper and candidate-like in his sports coat and tie.
He perched next to his van, his hands shoved into his pockets, while television cameramen from channels 2 and 11 set up to hear him announce his candidacy for mayor of Baltimore. Kaufman's van is legendary, covered with bumper stickers that say as much about the owner's left-wing, Trotskyite politics as Kaufman himself does.
"Empty the prisons, make room for Congress," reads one.
"Invest in America: Buy a Congressman," reads another. Just in case those two don't convince you that the van belongs to someone enamored of neither Democrats nor Republicans, there are a couple of others:
"Under Republicans, man exploits man. Under Democrats, it's just the opposite."
"Politicians and diapers need to be changed, often for the same reason."
Of course, there's an obligatory dig at the media:
"The media are only as liberal as the conservative businesses that own them."
Indeed, Kaufman, the 67-year-old activist who has championed left-wing causes for years, feels the media are his only obstacle to the mayor's seat.
"If the media did the job I was told they do in elementary school - report the facts and the issues - I would probably win," Kaufman said. It's on the issues that Kaufman stands out. You can bet a year's salary that you won't hear any other mayoral candidate with positions like Kaufman's.
On car insurance: Kaufman wants the city to run a nonprofit car and home insurance company to drive down insurance costs for Baltimore residents.
"This would eliminate one of the reasons people leave the city," said Kaufman, who, as head of the Citywide Coalition, has advocated lower insurance rates for city dwellers for years. The main obstacle, Kaufman believes, is "the power structure that runs the city doesn't want it to happen." Dismiss him as a left-wing extremist if you like, but the truth is car insurance companies exist to suck money from consumers' wallets. Maryland's politicians, state and local, seem content to let them do it.
On drugs: Kaufman advocates "taking the profits out of drugs" and treating drugs as a public health issue.
"Commissioner [Thomas] Frazier says three out of four murders and 90 percent of felonies are drug-related," Kaufman observed, adding that treating drugs as a health issue would lower the crime rate and might inspire folks to move back into the city. Kaufman also chastised Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, whom he feels backed off from supporting drug decriminalization after local ministers criticized him.
"Every time there was a drive-by shooting, he should have been at the funeral standing over the coffin saying, 'This wouldn't have happened if you'd done what I'd proposed.'"
On taxes: Kaufman would replace the city property tax with a progressive income tax and a commuter tax for those who work in Baltimore but live in surrounding counties.
On education: "Our schools are not run democratically," Kaufman said. "Our school boards are run by politicians - namely, the governor and the mayor - who appoint people. Parents should have the majority of seats on the school board."
Why would an activist like Kaufman sully himself with a political office of any kind? The job of an activist, after all, is to light fire under the rumps of politicians. It's a job more crucial than the job of politician itself. Kaufman had a ready answer.
"I can empathize with these guys," he said of career politicians. "If you're not gonna rock the boat, and you have to deliver to the money guys, you're not going to get anything done. You can't serve two masters."
Still, Kaufman might be more effective as an activist than as a mayor, as a gadfly than a politician. He's run for office before and lost. But you have to admire his guts and his persistence. Maybe, from time to time, activists should run for public office. And voters should consider voting for them, if for no other reason than to keep mainstream politicians on their toes.
Besides, who could deny Kaufman's most memorable quote of the morning?
"What we need is some creative thinking in this town, because this town is sinking into oblivion."
Pub Date: 12/09/98