Tufaro's viewpoint challenges politics as usual in Baltimore; GOP nominee for mayor tries to shift city's ways


The last time David F. Tufaro held political office was 30 years ago, when he was chairman of the Progressive Party at the Yale University Political Union, leading debates beside the pipe organ in the high Victorian confines of Battell Chapel.

What inspired this reserved and cerebral 52-year-old developer from Roland Park to quit his $155,000-a-year job and plunge into the muddy brawl of Baltimore politics in the hope of becoming the city's first Republican mayor since 1967?

Friends say Tufaro doesn't so much expect to win as to force the city's liberal establishment to consider conservative solutions to urban problems it has made worse, such as the flight of the middle class and the failure of public schools.

In other words, he's trying to transform Mob Town politics into a public policy forum like the Yale Political Union.

There is also this explanation for his career change: a multimillion-dollar profit in a business deal involving Amazon.com last year left him so rich he doesn't have to work.

But whether his Ivy League-style debating tactics will win the hearts of rowhouse Baltimore is still to be seen.

While he delivered a 15-page dissertation on "encouraging quality urban design" and other subjects in front of Broadway Homes public housing complex last week, he was surrounded and shouted down by residents.

"Don't come in here with that bull," shouted Mae Huff, 55, a member of the tenants council. "He can't relate to the people of Baltimore. He can't tell us how we should live."

At 5 feet 7 inches tall, 140 pounds, with a high-strung, intensely serious demeanor, Tufaro appeared out of place there in his dark-blue pinstriped suit.

He seemed stunned by the boos and shouts. But then he displayed the character that those who know him say has defined his life. Despite the catcalls, he doggedly plowed through the details of his 15-page position paper, his slightly nasal voice calm and persistent.

Afterward, he stuck around to talk to his critics. He didn't seem to win them over, but he told them, "This is exactly the kind of discussion we should be having."

Tufaro's supporters describe him as a philanthropist and urban policy devotee who has succeeded in so many business ventures that he doesn't fear failure.

He is highly intelligent but opinionated, pugnacious and sometimes irritating even to his co-workers. When Tufaro speaks, he tends to talk in not just complete sentences, but whole paragraphs, thrusting his index finger upward or chopping his hand through the air if anyone tries to interrupt him.

"He's sort of an Italian Jimmy Carter, a terrible politician but a great human being who doesn't want to barter on the issues," said Charles W. Brown, a former partner of Tufaro's who is a vice president of Summit Properties Inc., a development company in Atlanta.

Analytic approach

Tufaro has such a tendency to analyze and rethink issues that it took him two years to plan the kitchen of his home on Edgevale Road in Roland Park.

The kitchen, which was designed by the architect of the American Visionary Art Museum, features skylights, stained-glass windows, contemporary Italian halogen lights, a French 19th century dining-room table and counter tops made from huge slabs of black Indian granite.

"He's very thoughtful but it's not easy for him to make a decision," the architect, Rebecca Swanston, said, laughing.

Tufaro has a temper. He scolded the leaders of civic groups and media outlets for refusing to include Republicans in debates and news coverage because the city is overwhelmingly Democratic.

He tells of how a few years he chased a Mass Transit Administration bus speeding on Falls Road near his home, pulled over when the bus stopped and yelled at the driver for violating the 30-mph speed limit.

"Sometimes you just get so angry about things you just have to go out and do something about them yourself," said Tufaro.

New York upbringing

Tufaro is the son of a concrete mason, Frank Tufaro, whose family moved from Terra Nova Di Napolini, Italy, to East Harlem, New York City, when Frank was 3.

The elder Tufaro never went to college but took great pride in helping to lay the stairs of the Empire State Building.

He went on to become president of the New York State Homebuilders Association. He prospered, building hundreds of houses until his development business was crushed by the recession of 1953-1954.

"There were enormous financial strains at home, and we saw the stresses between our father and mother," said Richard Tufaro, 55, one of David's two older brothers. "They argued a lot. You could hear them shouting. It was very stressful for my mother, but my father felt he couldn't do any more than he was doing."

Frank Tufaro refused to declare bankruptcy, shifting from development to become a real estate agent and eventually paying off his debts just before he died in 1975.

Yale education

David Tufaro graduated first in his class at Woodlands High School in Hartsdale, N.Y., in 1965, then enrolled that fall as an ROTC student and history major at Yale University.

As chairman of the Progressive Party in a debating club at the Yale Political Union, Tufaro led discussions about topics such as the Vietnam War and was known by his fellow students as a political moderate fascinated by urban issues such as public education.

Russell Osgood, Tufaro's roommate for three years at Yale and now president of Grinnell College in Iowa, said his friend's love of debate had roots in his family's intense dinner table conversation.

"It was something I'd never seen before," Osgood said, laughing. "I come from a dry Yankee family in which conversation isn't a big deal. But I would go over to their home to eat, and his father and mother would really bore in on you and ask you what you thought. Man, would they go after you, really challenging you."

David Tufaro graduated in the top quarter of his class in 1969, a year after Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, a year before cartoonist Garry Trudeau and two years before Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Tufaro says he remembers Trudeau, but not Bush or Schmoke.

Inspired by his father's work as a developer and his study of urban issues at Yale, Tufaro went on to earn a degree combining city planning and law at the University of Pennsylvania in 1972.

He moved to Bolton Hill the next year to take a job with the Piper & Marbury law firm, hoping to do legal work on planned communities such as Columbia.

He left after 5 1/2 years, deciding that legal work was more abstract than the construction projects with which he wanted to dirty his hands.

Lewis Noonberg, who heads the Washington office of the prestigious law firm, remembers working with Tufaro defending Exxon Corp. in a challenge of a state law that barred oil companies from owning gas stations. The case, Exxon vs. Mandel, went to the U.S. Supreme Court before Exxon lost.

"He's a bulldog. Once he gets hold of an idea, he just doesn't let it go," said Noonberg.

Developing apartments

From 1978 through June this year, Tufaro was development director and partner in the Oxford Development Corp. and Summit Properties, building 6,410 apartments in 29 complexes. Five of the projects were in Baltimore; most of the rest were in suburban Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Perhaps Tufaro's most difficult project was building the 196-unit Waterloo Place apartments on St. Paul Street in downtown Baltimore in 1991. Six previous plans to develop the parking lot at the edge of Mount Vernon Place had failed.

When cost estimates for Waterloo came in 20 percent to 30 percent higher than expected, Summit executives worried that investors would pull out because the real estate market was flagging, said William F. Paulsen, Summit's chief executive officer.

Tufaro drove his contractor to work seven days a week to finish by deadline, shrinking Summit's profit margin while persuading investors to increase funding and the city to defer taxes.

The National Homebuilders Association gave Waterloo Place an award for best mid-rise apartments in the nation in 1993.

Schmoke, who said he remembered Tufaro's lobbying him for the tax deferral to help finance Waterloo Place, said he finds it contradictory that Tufaro now campaigns against the "corporate welfare" of tax breaks for developers.

Tufaro notes that he received not a tax abatement on the project, but a tax deferral that eventually required Waterloo Place's owners to pay back all of the taxes plus 7 percent. He said he has been campaigning against tax breaks for politically connected developers pushing unwise projects, not all tax incentives for development.

Not everything Tufaro has worked on has been a success. He was a member of an advisory board of the Baltimore Corporation for Housing Partnerships, in the early 1990s the city's leading private developer of low-income housing.

Nearly 50 of the group's projects went into foreclosure by March 1997, and the state placed the organization on probation because of continuing financial problems.

Tufaro, who joined the board in 1990, volunteered to become chairman in fall 1996. At first he tried to rescue the organization, but he then realized he would have to sell its assets to pay its debts.

Patricia Payne, state secretary of housing from 1995 to last year, said Tufaro can't be blamed for the organization's collapse.

"He came in as chairman after the problems occurred, so I certainly wouldn't attribute the problems to him," Payne said. "He stepped up to the plate, became chairman in difficult circumstances and did a yeoman's job closing the organization."

Investment in PlanetAll

Tufaro earned millions from the stock market in August last year. Two years earlier, his nephew, Warren Adams, approached him about starting an Internet company called PlanetAll Inc. that would help traveling business people store their schedules and address books on the Internet.

Tufaro invested $500,000, the company prospered, and he made millions when Amazon.com bought PlanetAll for $87.9 million last year.

He said he left Summit Properties, one of the largest developers of upscale apartments in the East, in July, in part because he felt he was losing control of the company, in which he was originally a partner.

When Summit became a publicly traded company in 1994, Wall Street investors tried to steer the company toward building in the booming Southeast and away from the mid-Atlantic region, a move Tufaro opposed.

Now Tufaro is campaigning full time for mayor in a city where Republicans outnumber Democrats 9-to-1.

His wife, Sharon, runs Shananigans, a toy store in Roland Park. Their daughter Theresa, 19, is a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis. Jennifer, 16, and Christina, 12, are students at Friends School in North Baltimore.

Tufaro said he was inspired to run in part because he was disgusted by the tax breaks the city gave to what he considers a badly located project, the Inner Harbor East hotel. He was also galled when his former law firm, Piper & Marbury, announced last year that it would move out of the city.

"If I were mayor, I would have made sure that would never happen," said Tufaro. "When we see the terrible condition that the city is in, somebody's just got to step up and show some leadership."

It has been an uphill battle for the Republican candidate to convince the overwhelmingly Democratic city that it should take him seriously.

Campaigning for mayor

On a recent afternoon, Tufaro campaigned door-to-door on Luzerne Avenue just north of Patterson Park. It's a racially integrated neighborhood of Formstone rowhouses, some boarded up.

At 31 Luzerne St., a barefoot man in a T-shirt with the logo of the Mayflower moving company answered the door.

"Hi. I'm David Tufaro. I'm running for mayor of Baltimore," Tufaro said, thrusting his brochure toward the man.

The man eyed him skeptically and said, "I thought we already had a mayor."

"No," Tufaro said, laughing, "That was the primary. I'm the Republican candidate the better candidate."

"I'll be the judge of that," the man said.

Tufaro ran across the street, jacket tails flapping, to catch a couple. A young man with a black bandanna around his head was walking with a woman who was dragging a crying girl.

"Hi. I'm David Tufaro. Republican candidate for mayor. Have you heard of me?"

"No," the man said.

"I've been active in the city for 27 years. I'm running because I can't stand to see the city continue to decline, with the poor schools, the crime."


Tufaro followed as they crossed Fairmont Avenue, their backs to him.

"Would you consider voting for me?" Tufaro asked.

"Naw, man, I don't think so," the man said.

Standing atop the white granite steps of another rowhouse, Tufaro smoothed his hair. "Maybe it was because my hair was so wild. It scared them away," he said, chuckling.

Among Republican friends

Tufaro received a warmer reception that night at a party for Republican campaign workers at the Annapolis home of former Tennessee Sen. Bill Brock.

As the sky turned purple over the Severn River, the lighted globes on the Naval Academy Bridge sprang to life behind a tent in Brock's back yard.

People wearing "Bush 2000" stickers on their jackets nibbled wild mushroom tarts served by waiters in tuxedos, strolled along a path lighted by candles and talked tax cuts.

Richard D. Bennett, chairman of the state Republican Party, said it's a good sign for the GOP and the two-party system in Baltimore that a man of Tufaro's stature had the guts to run despite terrible odds.

"He doesn't need this job to be somebody. He's already successful. He sees a chance to do something," Bennett said. "I'm not prepared to say he'll win. He faces tremendous odds, a 9-to-1 gap in registered voters. But nobody can question his integrity and his courage."

Tufaro looked a bit sheepish as he stood on an impromptu stage on Brock's back porch beside J. C. Watts, a U.S. representative from Oklahoma and a rising star in the Republican Party.

Turning to Tufaro, Watts said, "Mayor, I'm delighted to be with you this evening."

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