Toe-to-toe battle in the 5th; Pivot: The city's far northwest corner is rich in votes but not an obvious stronghold for any of the three major candidates.; CITY PRIMARY 1999


It was a street-corner political drama played out on a sunny Election Day. The site was a polling place at Callaway Elementary, in the heart of the city's northwest. The cast was Baltimore to the core.

At one end of the sidewalk stood Roxanne Alexander, handing out fliers for her first cousin, Lawrence A. Bell III. Nearby was Darryl Stokes, handing out fliers for his second cousin, Carl Stokes. Just past him was Karin Marie Kendrick, handing out fliers for her one-time law school classmate, Martin O'Malley.

All three grew up in the neighborhood. All three were prepared to go toe to toe, voter by voter, for their mayoral candidates.

So, when Mary McKesson came strolling up in a black cowboy hat, announcing, "I'm looking for information on who to vote for," it was as if the starter's bugle had just sounded at Pimlico Race Course. The stampede was on.

They gave her pamphlets. They gave her advice. They whispered in her ear and pointed out key lines of propaganda. Then McKesson moved on toward the polls, a pile of colorful papers in hand, promising, "I'll give everybody a fair chance."

Such was life yesterday in the 5th Councilmanic District, the sort of place that national pundits call "a battleground" because it has high stakes that even by polling time still seem up for grabs.

Richer in votes than any other district in the last city election, yet not an obvious stronghold for any of the three major candidates, the 5th was one of the pivots upon which yesterday's election turned.

And judging from some of the scenes that played out in the district's streets and polling places, the 5th also showed just how cozy the combat can get when campaigns battle each other neighborhood by neighborhood.

No matter how big and complex the city's problems get, in some ways Baltimore remains a small and insular town.

According to Claritas, a statistical research firm in Virginia, the population within the district's ZIP codes is about 70 percent African-American, and the white population is heavily Jewish.

The middle class is strong in the district -- the median annual income is about $42,000 -- yet sections of the district share the city's most pressing problems, such as vacant houses and poorly performing schools.

Within this big-vote district, the most voter-rich area is the 69th Precinct of the 27th Ward, where a city-leading 1,350 turned out in 1995. And within that precinct, the most eager voter might be Milton Yoffee, age 80.

Yoffee, who manages a clothing store at Security Square Mall, appeared yesterday at 6: 30 a.m. at the locked doors of Cross Country Elementary a half-hour before the polls were due to open.

It was still dark, with only the chirping crickets for company and the dewy grass sparkling in the light of the street lamps.

Yoffee figures he's been the first person in his precinct to vote for every election in the past 25 years, even if his friend Herman Kernan has nearly beaten him a few times along the way.

Not long after Yoffee arrived yesterday, campaign workers began showing up, setting up like merchants at an outdoor market with their signposts and pamphlets.

But by 7: 15 a.m. it was clear that something had gone wrong. A quarter-hour after the polls should have opened, the doors were still locked, and by then more than 40 people were waiting behind Yoffee.

Some were clamoring to get in.

"There's no reason for this," shouted one woman. "I'm very upset. I've got a plane to catch, and I've never missed an election."

If the electorate had needed any reminder of how deeply Baltimore's dysfunctions had penetrated, this was it. Things didn't get much better when, at 7: 20, the doors finally opened.

The disgruntled arrivals trooped down a hallway to the school gymnasium, where the 69th Precinct voted on the right side and the 67th voted on the left, only to find that the poll workers still weren't ready to receive them.

The going was particularly slow on the left, where election judge Katherine Greene was still opening boxes of voter cards.

"You're just going to have to deal with us," Greene told the waiting voters, who were beginning to complain. "It's not our problem. You call downtown."

That was more than George Swift could stand. Still in uniform from the overnight shift as a watershed policeman for the Department of Public Works, he was trying to vote on his way home.

"You really shouldn't be at that desk," Swift scolded, "because that's not the right attitude to deal with the public."

Such delays, repeated at other polling places in the district, seemed all the more galling once the initial lines dwindled, when early turnout ran well behind the pace of the last city elections.

By late afternoon the pace had quickened, though in most of the district's precincts the totals at the end of the day still fell short of the 1995 turnout.

But there was still plenty of work to do throughout the day at Callaway Elementary School for Bell's cousin, Stokes' cousin and O'Malley's classmate. At 7 p.m. they were still at their posts, watching as O'Malley departed after a fairly warm reception.

Kendrick, the O'Malley volunteer, was pleased.

Throughout the day in the district, and in the entire city, the generally unspoken subtext was race, as in: How many black voters would choose the white O'Malley, and how many white voters would choose one of the black candidates, Bell or Stokes. And the conventional wisdom held that a low turnout would favor O'Malley.

Kendrick, living and doing her Election Day work in a predominantly black precinct, found herself torn on what to hope for.

"A low turnout [in the precinct] would help my candidate tremendously," she said. "But it would be disappointing. This is where I live. We'll be pleasantly surprised if we can get three of every 10 votes here."

A voter who emerged from the polls a few moments later confirmed such thinking. For Brenda Burrell, O'Malley had never been a realistic choice.

She'd voted for Stokes, saying, "I like the way he speaks. He sounds strong, and he sounds like he's going to stand up for blacks. If there's a problem for blacks, he won't shy away from it like [Mayor Kurt L.] Schmoke has. Bell is a little too wild. He's not ready yet."

By the same token, the O'Malley support seemed far more evident in the district's precincts with more white voters.

Outside the polls at Fallstaff Middle School, Bennett Schiff, 74, had little good to say about anybody in City Hall since William Donald Schaefer left the mayor's office in January 1987.

"We need a mayor that's going to show himself, and not just sit behind a desk," Schiff said. "I know O'Malley's been through the city a lot, so maybe he'll be like Schaefer. Bell? How can he manage the budget when he can't even manage his own finances?"

But by day's end, it was clear that race wasn't such a reliable predictor of voting trends.

Kendrick was buoyed by the support O'Malley was getting in her precinct, a performance the candidate repeated in other African-American precincts.

One who joined the trend was McKesson, the woman in the black cowboy hat who caused such a fuss at Callaway Elementary when she asked for information on the candidates yesterday morning. Having digested it all, she made her choice, emerging from the school about 10 minutes later.

The campaign workers looked her way, but she offered nothing.

"I won't tell you, can't tell you," she said with a smile when a reporter approached.

But after strolling around a corner, where things were quieter, she looked over her shoulder and said, "Hey, I'll show you this much." She then poked a green O'Malley flier from her pile of campaign literature.

"OK?" she said. Then, with a wink, she headed for home.

Pub Date: 9/15/99

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