Color fades from race for mayor; Voters, endorsements cross racial lines in search of city's savior


Well, now they've done it. The three main candidates in the mayor's race answered questions about race head-on in a televised debate the other night.

The verdict? No big deal.

In contrast to the racially charged mayor's race of 1995, issues of black and white this year seem secondary to education and crime, housing and economic development.

Officials and organizations have bestowed an uncommon number of cross-racial political endorsements, mostly from blacks to Martin O'Malley and whites to Carl Stokes. Polls show voters are less likely to cast their ballots along racial lines than they did in 1995.

Observers see several possible reasons for this shift: a trio of front-runners, two black, one white, who have barred much of the typical black vs. white rhetoric; heightened concern about all that ails the city; and disappointment in Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, an African-American who many thought would solve the city's woes.

Though a considerable number of die-hard, race-based voters remain, many seem to be saying that they want someone -- no matter what color -- who can turn Baltimore around.

"I don't care what color a person is, as long as they get something done in this city," said Myra Brooks, a black Rosemont resident who voted for Schmoke in 1995 and now supports O'Malley.

"I'd leave the city if I could afford it," she said, blaming mushrooming drugs and crime near her home.

Edward R. K. Hargadon, a white attorney from Charles Village who supports Stokes, acknowledged that race will be a factor, but not as overtly as in the past. "I'm not naive enough not to say that predominantly white areas might support a white candidate and predominantly black areas support black candidates, but I think it's moving in the right direction. I don't see the kind of polarization happening in this race that we've seen in the past."

But it has not been a colorblind campaign.

Yesterday, Stokes released a radio ad that features his grandmother urging blacks to vote for him to "make sure we don't lose everything we've gained."

A prominent city minister, the Rev. Douglas I. Miles of Koinonia Baptist Church, said a successful mayoral bid by O'Malley would devastate Baltimore. Miles and others view O'Malley's relatively late entry into the race as political opportunism, designed to capitalize on a split black vote.

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III took the same tack in Monday's television debate, accusing O'Malley of entering the race to benefit from the expected split. Earlier last month, Bell urged a largely black crowd at Druid Hill Park to vote for someone who "looks like you."

Last week, copies of a letter by unidentified writers circulated in Guilford, Charles Village and other mostly white neighborhoods urging residents to vote for City Councilman O'Malley because he is white.

O'Malley says he tried to get others -- including NAACP President Kweisi Mfume and Sen. Joan Carter Conway -- to enter the race. Days after Conway decided not to run, O'Malley said, he declared his candidacy "despite the fact that I knew I'd be called a racist."

As Baltimore Afro-American columnist Jonathan Ward wrote last week, "[I]f you look beyond these few isolated remarks, what you see is that surprisingly little else in the way of inflammatory racial rhetoric has been issued this campaign season, and that may be some of the most encouraging news to come out of this town in a very long time."

Signs of change

One of the first signs of changing racial politics in Baltimore came when a committee to draft Mfume to run for mayor released a roster of supporters in May that was heavily white.

Last month, Conway, an African-American who has focused on strengthening the black community, joined a host of white state officials in endorsing O'Malley.

At the time, she worried that the move would make her a "target" -- but that hasn't been the case. Several other black politicians endorsed O'Malley, as did the Service Employees International Union, a mostly black union with a black president.

Sen. Clarence W. Blount, who endorsed Stokes, called for unity among racial groups.

White state Dels. James W. Campbell and Maggie L. McIntosh, both Baltimore Democrats, endorsed Stokes, as has The Sun, an institution many minorities view as white.

In Charles Village, which Stokes represented as a city councilman, a group of mostly white activists has for weeks held informal gatherings to rally residents around his candidacy. Some meetings that were supposed to draw a handful of residents have attracted overflow crowds, said organizer Hargadon, who supported Schmoke in the last election.

Nonetheless, an opinion poll late last month showed that 63 percent of black voters support Stokes or Bell, and more than half of whites back O'Malley, according to Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications, an independent polling firm in Annapolis.

But these numbers are smaller than just four years ago, when about three-quarters of whites supported then-City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who is white, and a similar proportion of blacks were for Schmoke. Post-election sampling indicated that as many as 90 percent of voters supported candidates of their race.

During the 1995 campaign, Schmoke's signs and bumper stickers bore colors -- red, black and green -- typically used in militant black circles. And his campaign used a slogan, "Mayor Schmoke Makes Us Proud," that prompted many to read "Us" as "blacks."

"If you think back into the '60s, the theme was 'I'm black and I'm proud,' so 'Mayor Schmoke Makes Us Proud' was that underlying message," said Cheryl Benton, a political consultant who worked on the Clarke campaign. "The way Schmoke ran his campaign, he put the voters in a box of being compelled to choose a mayor based on race."

When Clarke looked as if she might beat Schmoke, African-American politicians rallied around the incumbent in what was called a "crisis situation" for blacks. Unexpectedly large numbers of blacks voted, sweeping Schmoke to victory by a 20-point margin.

"The appeal toward race was definitely hurtful," said Ralph E. Moore Jr., vice president of the Baltimore-based Center for Poverty Solutions.

Air of disappointment

Ironically, he said, things may be changing partly because Schmoke -- once viewed as the city's "Great Black Hope" -- has disappointed many residents.

"The underlying message of 1995 [for blacks] was, if you vote African-American, your problems will be solved, but here we are four years later and things haven't changed," said Moore, a former City Council candidate who is African-American. "If we thought four years ago that [the racial politics were] all sorted out, it doesn't appear to be now."

Edward Chance, a veteran black civil rights activist who follows politics closely, said he once supported Schmoke but now is considering O'Malley.

"My sense from people, and most of the ones I talk to are black, say they'll vote for O'Malley," Chance said. "No longer will I support a candidate just because he's black. I'll probably look at experience."

In the last two weeks of August, O'Malley's support from blacks grew 6 percentage points to 18 percent, according to the Gonzales/Arscott surveys.

Similar interracial backing is emerging for Stokes. Since late June, Stokes' support from whites grew 10 percentage points to 27 percent, the surveys show. (Bell's white support has dropped from 31 percent in June to 5 percent in the most recent poll.)

The most recent Gonzales/Arscott opinion poll, released last week, showed O'Malley edging Stokes by 1 percentage point, with Bell about 10 points behind.

"I do get a different feeling" compared to 1995, Hargadon said. "There's much more support from the Caucasian community for Stokes than there was for Schmoke. That was a really racially polarized campaign.

"Even people who don't support Carl will talk about it and will tell you why they might support O'Malley," Hargadon said. "In the last campaign, people were slamming doors in my face, and they were white folks -- not everyone, but there was just a lot more tension than there is now."

A complex campaign

Some think more cross-racial endorsements are cropping up this year because the campaign is more complex than in recent memory. There are dozens of candidates and a few front-runners, but none of them has emerged as a clear choice.

Campbell supported Clarke in 1995 but is behind Stokes in this campaign. He agrees that race has been less of an issue this year, but wonders if it might just be a new brand of politicking.

"Now, all the candidates are going after all the votes," he said. "I think it's such a close election that they can't afford to offend anybody."

Some residents think the city's problems with schools, crime, housing and a host of other matters are forcing the election to focus on issues. Many say they simply want someone, whether black or white, to improve conditions.

Brooks, the Rosemont resident, complained at a recent City Council candidate's forum about open-air drug markets and lethargic police protection in her neighborhood -- problems she says are pushing her to support a white candidate for the first time in years.

"We're all Americans," she said. "We have to get away from the color thing. Everybody just wants somebody who'll fix the problems."

Crossing lines

Black political leaders who have endorsed City Councilman Martin O'Malley, who is white, included Baltimore state Dels. Howard P. Rawlings and Kenneth C. Montague Jr., Baltimore state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, and City Council members Stephanie Rawlings and Rita R. Church.

White political leaders who have endorsed Carl Stokes, who is black, included Baltimore state Dels. Maggie L. McIntosh and James W. Campbell.

Pub Date: 9/03/99

An article yesterday incorrectly identified poll results for the city's mayoral candidates. In the Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications Poll released two weeks ago, Carl Stokes won the support of 32 percent of voters, Martin O'Malley 30 percent and Lawrence A. Bell III 20 percent. The firm has ended its polling for this election. The Sun regrets the error.
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