GOP hopeful aims to be life of the party


IT'S NOT THAT Bob Santoni is an impatient man, you understand. It's just that at the tender age of 55, he has little patience for certain things. The Republican businessman -- who's running for a City Council seat in the 1st District -- says Baltimoreans aren't getting their money's worth from the $7,400 the school system spends per student.

"With $7,400 per student," Santoni declared, "I'm expecting better results than what I'm getting now. With one school system employee for every nine students, I shouldn't have discipline problems. I shouldn't have absenteeism."

Santoni was reminded that city teachers have to pay for their supplies.

What will he do if 1st District teachers call him and complain?

"Watch me," Santoni warned.

He sat in the "sardine can" -- his name for the tiny office on the second floor of Santoni's supermarket in the 3800 block of E. Lombard St. He is one of several Republicans running for City Council seats in depressingly Democratic Baltimore. Sanford Horne is running in the 5th District. Joe Brown is running in the 6th. Based on 32 straight years of Democratic misgoverning, all should win. Santoni is confident he can.

Santoni said the 1st District voted Republican for Ronald Reagan in presidential races and for Ellen Sauerbrey in two gubernatorial races. The district went for Spiro Agnew when he ran for governor and Theodore McKeldin when he ran for mayor. Mayoral candidate Victor Clark lost the district by only 200 votes in the 1995 election. The 1st District, thank heavens, is not knee-jerk Democratic.

"Little old lady customers come up to me and point their fingers and say, 'I've never voted for a Republican in my life, but I'm going to vote for you,' "

Santoni said. His campaign stresses that people should vote for the person first, not the party. If 1st District voters do that, Santoni should be a shoo-in.

Just watch Santoni as he walks through his 25,000-square-foot store and greets customers by their first names. They greet him back with a cordial "Hi, Bob." Imagine it. The owner of a supermarket who greets his customers on a first-name basis. Santoni comes naturally to this hands-on, personal touch and uses it to take on the supermarket chains -- Giant, Metro, Safeway -- and more than hold his own with the competition. It's Santoni's success against those odds -- and his archetypal American story -- that may inspire 1st District voters to send him to the City Council.

The family business started in 1930, when Santoni's father, Italian immigrant Savino Santoni, opened a 210-square-foot grocery store in the back of his house. The elder Santoni moved the store to a Formstone structure in the 100 block of S. Eaton St. in 1944 -- just around the corner from where the larger Santoni's stands.

"My brother Paul and I took over the operation in the late 1960s," Santoni said.

They expanded the store in 1972 and moved to the current site in 1987.

The elder Santoni, a lifelong Democrat, died two years later.

His son Bob registered as a Democrat in 1966, just after he graduated with an accounting degree from Loyola College.

"Nobody in this neighborhood was allowed to be a Republican," Santoni recalled. "They couldn't even spell the word. That was the old [former 1st District Councilman] 'Mimi' DiPietro days. When you registered to vote, there was no choice."

Santoni registered as a Republican in 1982.

Savino Santoni sent his sons to parochial school. Santoni graduated from Loyola High School before attending Loyola College. He believes public schools should operate on the parochial school kindergarten- through-grade-eight model. The middle-school approach in public schools, as several teachers and mayoral candidate Lawrence A. Bell III have pointed out, has not worked. Santoni agrees.

"We took a poll of 1st District voters on education," Santoni said. "We found their two main concerns were quality teaching and classroom discipline." Discipline in middle schools -- or the lack of it -- is what public school teachers have urged the city's political leadership to correct for years.

Santoni advocates the zero-tolerance approach to crime. He would fight the drug problem by taking abusers off the streets. He wouldn't jail them. He would have judges give them the more cost-effective option of 30 days of home detention.

How badly Santoni wants to serve this town, how high he holds it in his affection, can be gleaned from the fact that he and his wife moved from Harford County back into the city.

"We love it," Santoni said. "We're having a ball."

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