Electing a white mayor not out of the question; Martin O'Malley is a virtual unknown outside of Northeast Baltimore, though he has gained some citywide exposure for his incessant criticism of the Police Department.


CAN a white politician be elected mayor of majority-black Baltimore? Poll numbers seem to indicate the answer is yes -- depending on the name of that white candidate.

Still, the odds are strongly against such an outcome.

Baltimore's politics have always divided along ethnic and racial lines.

Look at the long history of the Irish in Northeast Baltimore electing a slew of their compatriots to office, or the long tradition of Jews in Northwest Baltimore siding heavily with home-grown candidates.

It's a natural tendency. African-Americans are no different in that respect.

Black people helped Kurt L. Schmoke's career -- first giving him an upset win over white conservative Bill Swisher for state's attorney in 1982, then his three victories for mayor.

With 60 percent of the voting electorate coming from the black community, the odds heavily favor African-American candidates.

Yet with so many people running for mayor this year, the outcome is unpredictable. It's conceivable that a white candidate could squeak to victory.

That's what Martin O'Malley, 36, is hoping. He's the two-term councilman, lawyer and Irish balladeer who has decided to take a shot at the brass ring this year.

Race, he says, is not the issue. It's leadership and vision.

He's right on those points. City voters -- black and white -- have had enough of the lethargy of the Schmoke administration.

They yearn for a dynamic mayor who knows what the city's problems are, voices sensible ways to deal with them and shows a determination to knock some heads together to make things happen.

The vision thing

The candidate who does the best job of capturing the public's imagination with his or her vision could wind up as the next mayor.

Mr. O'Malley does not lack for ideas. He's suave, glib and comes as close as anyone in a bland mayoral field to being charismatic.

He's also far and away the best campaign tactician and field manager. He can put together a field operation with the best of them.

But he's a virtual unknown outside of Northeast Baltimore, though he has gained some citywide exposure for his incessant criticism of the police department. He's got little time to a) get his name known citywide, and b) convince voters he possesses the most ability and best vision to lead Baltimore.

His prime issue is cutting the crime rate and dealing with the drug epidemic. That dovetails with his work on the City Council. It also coincides with what a recent poll of Baltimore residents by Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications Inc.'s showed: dealing with these problems is clearly the No. 1 issue on voters' minds. If Mr. O'Malley exploits that concern in his campaign, he may have a shot.

But he has to make a very convincing case, especially in black neighborhoods, that his crime and drug proposals, his leadership and organizational skills and his energy level are so superior to his competitors that other factors, such as race, are irrelevant. Voters want a mayor who is ready to hit the ground running, not one who takes years to learn the ropes.

Schaefer lovers

That early June poll also showed a more experienced white candidate -- former governor and mayor William Donald Schaefer -- would be a heavy favorite to win this year's election. City voters trust Mr. Schaefer. They know he can do the job -- and make things happen.

But Mr. Schaefer isn't running -- so far.

That leaves Mr. O'Malley. He doesn't possess Mr. Schaefer's long career achievements, or the former mayor's 100-percent name recognition.

It takes years of dedicated service to build up trust in a community that is often hostile to accepting and supporting outsiders. Mr. O'Malley has a little more than two months to establish that kind of bond.

However, Mr. O'Malley may have gotten a break last week when former Baltimore Police Commissioner Bishop L. Robinson said that he will not run for mayor. Mr. Robinson was expected to get a lot of the white middle-class vote that now may go to Mr. O'Malley.

Also, another question in the Gonzales/Arscott poll could give the councilman reason to cheer. By a lopsided margin, black voters said they think Baltimore needs new leadership, not a return to the past.

At this stage, though, Mr. O'Malley's campaign looks Quixotic. Still, if he comes off looking poised and polished at the various community forums, fields a large and competent Election Day operation and raises enough money for those all-important media ads -- and if the front-runner, City Council President Lawrence Bell, stumbles -- Mr. O'Malley could pull off a shocking surprise in the September primary.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 6/27/99

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