Against the Odds; David Tufaro, Republican candidate, looks at his chances in the Baltimore mayoral race and pushes ahead anyway. Issues besides winning and losing are what concern him.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For three minutes, David Tufaro is a candidate with a television camera to call his own, free to say whatever he wants to say. No questions asked, literally. A dream come true for a politician -- especially one who's still fuming that he wasn't part of the televised debate.

So why does he look so pained?

With nervous, darting eyes, Tufaro stumbles through his script, even though it's full of the phrases he's mouthed many times in his bid to become Baltimore's first Republican mayor in decades.

"Cannot sit on the sidelines" "I share your outrage" "Will not be tied to special interests." And, perhaps underscoring the speech, if not his entire campaign: "Not a professional politician."

Take One. "It looked like he didn't even practice it," mutters a worker in the control booth. (Actually, he did.)

Take Two. "Try to relax," says Tufaro's campaign manager, veteran Republican operative Carol Hirschburg. (She's annoyed that there's no TelePrompTer, that they're fumbling with homemade cue cards.)

Take Three. "We can do one more," says Coles Ruff, director of government relations for TCI, the city cable company. (He'd said the same thing after Take Two.)

Take Four. "That's great, that was the best one," says Ruff.

Yes, this time Tufaro gets his message down on tape for later viewing on a cable public affairs program. At one point he says, "There are two important issues you won't hear the Democratic candidates talking about: reducing property taxes and improving the delivery of city services by introducing market competition."

The tax cut, he says, should be instituted "instead of subsidizing politically well-connected people who build downtown hotels." Then, the final dig: "One party, the Democrats, has ruled the city for the last 30 years. With ample opportunity to stem Baltimore's decline, they have failed miserably."

Tufaro steps away from the soundstage, relieved.

"That's not my cup of tea, frankly," he says. "I'm not as comfortable as I am in a more extemporaneous situation. But it's part of the whole thing."

By "the whole thing," he means running for mayor. For Tufaro -- lawyer, developer, community leader, but until now never a candidate -- it also means running his maiden race for the city's highest office.

And it means running as the chosen candidate of Baltimore's GOP establishment -- in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 9 to 1, and no Republican has been elected mayor in more than 30 years.

Tufaro, 52, knows that politics is a sometimes unseemly blend of issues, personality and showmanship. Truth is, he's known this since he was a little boy.

He opens his wallet and pulls out a dog-eared snapshot from his 1950s childhood. There, imbued with the time-capsule quality of black-and-white photography: 5-year-old David, his older brothers, his sister, his mother and father.

And, with his hand on young David's shoulder, an acquaintance named Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Tufaro treasures the picture with one of the GOP's great icons. But, perhaps surprisingly, not so much for the brush-with-greatness value, which he dismisses as just "a nice little touch."

Better, to him, it is one of the few early photos of his family -- and a reminder of the immigrant parents who shaped his approach to politics and public affairs.

Tufaro's father was a concrete mason who helped build the Empire State Building and a homebuilder whose fortunes rose and fell with economic cycles. After working on Fiorello LaGuardia's campaign for mayor in New York, he ran the Commonwealth Club, a service organization and political club in the Bronx.

He lobbied for laws affecting home builders and home buyers. And when he traveled to New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller's inaugurations and other Republican affairs, his children came too.

Young David admired his father's outspokenness. At the same time, he never cared much for the spectacle of the political event.

"It was fun to meet (Eisenhower), and I look back fondly on the experience," Tufaro says. But he adds, "In a sense, I was almost turned off to politics because there's a part I don't like. People become energized by being around people that they recognize, as opposed to the substance."

Maybe that's why Tufaro (pronounced two-FAR-oh, a campaign sign reading "2-4-0" notwithstanding) has spent so many years dealing with government from the outside as a lawyer and a developer, and as a community activist.

Educated in New York public schools, he became a Yale man and went on to Penn to earn a joint degree in law and urban planning. He came to Baltimore to work for Piper & Marbury because the firm was doing legal work in the emerging, planned community of Columbia.

Then he became a developer, first with Oxford Development Corp., working on projects such as Sharp Leadenhall Courts, a subsidized housing complex in South Baltimore, and the Foxwell Memorial Apartments for the deaf.

In 1984, he opened a regional office for Summit Properties, working out of his Bolton Hill rowhouse. He developed apartment complexes around the mid-Atlantic, including Waterloo Place in the Mount Vernon section of Baltimore. Summit worked out a deal with the city for a deferral on tax payments; in return, the city essentially received 10 percent of Summit's ownership stake in the complex.

In his office at Brown's Wharf, where the windows open to a view of the harbor and the water taxis, Tufaro opens a file drawer. Inside is a row of neatly labeled folders that provide a glimpse of his civic activities in his Roland Park neighborhood -- not to mention his button-down personality.

"Roland Park-Landscaping." "RP-BGE Property Synagogue." "RP-Billboards." The files contain his work with groups such as the Neighborhood Design Center and the Roland Park Community Foundation.

These kinds of issues, and his dissatisfaction with the city's handling of them, inspired him to run. It never seems to end, he says, citing a recent controversy about a proposed billboard that would cast its shadow on a housing complex in Hampden, and asking, "Where was the mayor?"

"Who's got more hands-on knowledge of working with communities, working with neighborhoods and at the same time being successful as a businessman?" he asks.

Last fall, when word began to circulate that Mayor Kurt Schmoke would not seek re-election, Tufaro first fancied a run at the job.

He met over breakfast at Hampden's Cafe Hon with David R. Blumberg, who for 16 years was chairman of the city Republican party. They knew each other through Roland Park civic affairs.

Blumberg was intrigued by Tufaro's interest, but he issued a warning: "If you're going to run citywide as a Republican, you have to say it's going to be difficult. It's going to take a lot of time and energy to show that what you're doing is different than the typical Republican campaign."

Tufaro says his wife was against the idea, so he postponed a final decision for months. The slim chances of winning were discussed.

"That was an issue: 'You have very little chance of winning; you're wasting your time,' " he recalls. "I said, 'I realize that, but if I can get some issues raised, then I've contributed. I have nothing to lose.' "

Except money. He contributed about half of the $50,000 raised so far toward his campaign, says Blumberg, the campaign treasurer. When he entered the race, Tufaro quit his job at Summit. He says he was ready to move on to a new field, or at least start another company, anyway.

He can afford this. Asked whether he is "rich," he pauses, then says, "I've been very fortunate and successful, yeah."

Anyway, win or lose, the candidacy "may open up some wonderful new doors to me," he says.

His campaign drew the support of key Republicans like Hirschburg, his manager, who last year worked on the Ellen Sauerbrey gubernatorial campaign, and Blumberg. The Independent Republican coalition, the city's largest GOP organization, endorsed him.

Since declaring his candidacy in June, Tufaro has attended forums, answered questionnaires. He's even advertised himself on radio, which until now was unheard of in city Republican primaries.

Tufaro says he hopes to raise at least $100,000 more if he wins the Sept. 14 primary election.

"He doesn't know he's supposed to go through the motions and lose big on Nov. 2," Blumberg says. "I'm glad for that, because the party obviously needs a shot in the arm."

Blumberg adds, "He has a similar personality to someone like (Rep.) Wayne Gilchrest. I don't know how that will play in Baltimore City. He's not smooth. He's not Martin O'Malley."

But you don't have to be smooth to do some homework. So Tufaro pries information from the city government. He reads books written by other big-city mayors. He talks to people like Bret Schundler, a Republican who managed to get elected in Jersey City, N.J., where the GOP registration is even less than in Baltimore.

And he comes up with some proposals. Like the other candidates, he talks of the need to reform schools and turn back crime. But he seeks to set himself apart by calling for the property tax rate to be cut, over four years, from $5.83 per $100 of assessed value to about $3.40.

Obvious question: How can a city that struggles to provide services afford such a tax cut?

His answer: Yes, there will be at least an initial drop in revenues, but they can be offset by a reduced need to offer controversial incentives for big business. And significant money could be saved by establishing "competitive markets" -- that is, soliciting bids from private companies -- for traditional municipal functions such as hauling trash and maintaining the vehicle fleet.

The question is, How does he promote his ideas in a city where Republican candidates seem an afterthought?

One night, he heads to South Baltimore, where volunteers are working a phone bank. As the three leading Democrats debate on television, reaching an estimated 68,000 households, Tufaro supporters contact voters one at a time. They talk to maybe 500.

Afterward, Tufaro calls a panel of radio commentators to complain about the debate format. He talks about Jersey City to support his argument that the Democratic primary is not necessarily the last word in the mayor's race. He's angry when his complaint is dismissed.

"They read the papers; they know what goes on in other cities," Tufaro says the next morning, still steaming. "It's such an inbred town in that it doesn't look outside either on substantive issues or the process itself."

Later that day, Tufaro sets out to campaign at Lexington Market. Somewhat awkwardly, he approaches a few shoppers and sellers in the market's post-lunch-hour calm.

Cornelius Paige, a 30-year-old registered independent from West Baltimore, talks about the challenges of earning a living. Tufaro suggests that there's always money in odd jobs in his neighborhood, Roland Park.

Paige says that if he knocked on doors in the most jaded, blighted areas of West Baltimore, residents would turn him away under the suspicion that he was up to no good.

What do you think would happen to me in Roland Park, he asks, the racial implications obvious. "You would look at me and say, 'I can mow my own yard,' " he says, answering himself.

"But I still like him because he was honest enough to give me an answer," Paige says.

His friend Eugene Weddington adds, "I respect that he said, 'Come in my neighborhood and look for work.' "

That night, Tufaro drives to Edmondson Avenue, where community groups are holding a forum for the candidates at St. Bartholomew's Church.

All three of the "leading" Democrats either show up late, leave early, or in one case, both. The more experienced politicians have a way of seizing the floor, of strolling toward the audience to deliver their lines.

Tufaro is content to stay in his chair when it's his turn to speak.

When the topic turns to schools, Tufaro suggests parents should be required to sign a "contract" to take part in their children's schooling. Some teachers say they find this idea unrealistic.

He says the school should use whatever leverage it can to make this happen. It works to get children immunized, he adds.

He talks of his plan to put services to bid, to cut taxes. He says he's opposed to slot machines.

What he doesn't do, in this forum, is acknowledge the almost impossible odds against his candidacy. Looking ahead to the general election, he says, "You will see one hell of a race against whoever the Democrats put up."

Pub Date: 9/07/99

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
61°