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Shut out six decades, GOP still knocking; Brown, Santoni mount strong bids for council

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Daniel Ellison's days as a footnote to Baltimore political history could be numbered.

Ellison was the last Republican elected to the City Council -- in 1939. Three years after winning a fifth term representing the 4th District, he left the council to mount a successful campaign for Congress.

In the 14 elections since, not one Republican council member has been elected in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.

But this year, two GOP candidates are running well-financed, well-organized campaigns in an effort to end that six-decade record of futility in the Nov. 2 general election.

Joseph Brown Jr., an assistant bank manager, is seeking one of three seats from Southwest Baltimore's 6th District. Robert N. Santoni Sr., head of a family founded grocery, wants to represent Southeast Baltimore's 1st District.

Both are trying to tap into what they see as voters' sentiment for change. Each is stressing his business acumen in races against six Democratic incumbents, only one of whom has a business background.

"I'm a businessman," said Santoni, president of Santoni's Market in East Baltimore, which was begun by his father 70 years ago. "I can work with government and business to get things done."

Brown said, "I'm able to create more partnerships, to get into doors my opponents may not be able to get into."

According to campaign finance reports filed in September, the two Republicans had raised about $20,000 each for their campaigns -- roughly equal to the amount raised by each of the three Democrats in the 6th District but $10,000 to $20,000 less than the Democrats in the 1st.

But two weeks before the election, both GOP contenders are facing questions about their candidacies: Brown, about his recent hiring of political strategist Julius Henson; Santoni, about $200,000 in state tax liens filed against his business for unpaid sales and withholding taxes.

On the surface, the 6th District race is a replay of the 1995 general election. In his first bid for elected office, Brown finished with 2,189 votes, far behind incumbents Norman A. Handy Sr. with 5,456, Edward L. Reisinger with 5,534, and Melvin L. Stukes with 6,214.

Anthony F. Forlenza, who finished last four years ago with 1,030 votes, and newcomer Joe Tebo Jr. are also on the Republican ballot.

A different year

Brown, 41, vows that this year will be different, in part because the $19,341 he had raised as of the last campaign finance reporting period was roughly twice what he raised four years ago and in part because he has had more volunteers and is better known because he has run before.

"Everything has come together," he said. "People want change, and I'm one of those agents of change."

One change is the campaign's hiring of Henson, who, as an operative of City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III in this year's mayoral primary, orchestrated the disruption of a City Hall endorsement rally of eventual Democratic nominee Martin O'Malley.

Henson -- who has run successful campaigns for a wide range of candidates, including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and 3rd District council nominee Lisa Stancil -- is concentrating on the distribution of literature and getting voters to the polls.

Brown said he had no qualms about hiring Henson and that he will take responsibility for the conduct of his campaign.

Reisinger, who is running on a ticket with Handy and Stukes, called Brown's hiring of Henson "a negative, especially with what happened with the Bell campaign."

On the issues, Brown and the Democrats are split over school vouchers. Brown supports them, saying, "If you look at the school system, I think we're doing a serious injustice to our children." Handy acknowledges problems with the system but calls vouchers a "Band-Aid. The problem is to fix the school system."

Handy has problems of his own with overdue campaign finance reports. He owes $810 in fines for late reports for 1997, last year and this year, election officials say, money that must be paid before he could be sworn in if he won another term. Handy said he takes "full responsibility" for the tardiness.

With registration in the 6th District mirroring the citywide 9-to-1 Democratic advantage, Brown would need substantial crossover votes to have a chance of gaining one of the three seats.

Mary Lou Kline, a Democratic community activist who supported Brown in 1995, is backing the Handy-Reisinger-Stukes ticket this time. She said her change of heart stems in part from an election to chair the Washington Village arm of the federally funded empowerment zone urban revitalization effort, in which Brown ousted her from office.

"All Joe wanted that [position] for is so he can put it on his resume," she said.

Another Democratic activist, Christopher Bruns, is backing Brown.

"He's a fairly moderate Republican," said Bruns. "I think it would be good if there were some real opposition in the council, instead of a bunch of people who are comfortable and getting re-elected all the time."

The Santoni effort

Like Brown, Santoni is in his second campaign for public office. In 1982, he ran for the state Senate as a Democrat. His name was taken off the ballot before the election after a city judge ruled that his legal residence was in Harford County, not Highlandtown.

Later that year, Santoni, now 54, became a Republican. In 1996, he moved from Harford County to the Harbor Court Condominiums at the Inner Harbor.

Besides Santoni, Republican Michael R. McNamara and Libertarian Lorenzo Gaztanaga will appear on next month's 1st District ballot, along with Democratic incumbents John L. Cain, Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. and Lois Garey.

As of the Sept. 3 reporting date, Santoni had raised $23,570. Among the contributors are such Republican heavyweights as Richard E. Hug and William E. Brock, but his campaign literature makes no mention of his party affiliation.

"I'm proud of being a Republican," he said. "But I want people to vote for Bob Santoni because I'm the best candidate, not be- cause I'm a Republican or a Democrat."

He does mention his support of zero tolerance for crime and a 50 percent cut in property taxes for owner-occupied properties as a way to reverse the flow of residents leaving the city.

Business and taxes

In an interview, Santoni said Baltimore should be run "as a business." He noted his experience with economic development groups in East Baltimore and Harford County, and the operation of his company as evidence of the "totally different view" he would bring to the job.

Court records show that the state filed tax liens of $198,216 against Santoni's business in October 1997 for unpaid sales taxes and of $3,369 in August for unpaid employee withholding taxes. In January, a $232,513 judgment against the business was entered in federal court on behalf of a Missouri-based equipment leasing company.

Santoni blamed his tax problems on the ill-fated expansion of his business to suburban locations that began in the late 1980s. He said his business is healthier than ever and that he has begun paying off the state and private creditors.

"Things happened," he said. "I didn't run away and hide. I solved the problem."

D'Adamo, dean of the 1st District delegation, declined to comment on Santoni's tax liens, but as chairman of the council's budget committee, he is less reticent about responding to some of Santoni's ideas, particularly his tax cut proposal.

"Impossible," said D'Adamo, a member of the council since 1987. "If it could be done, the council would have done it."

D'Adamo noted that he and fellow incumbents Cain and Garey were nominated in a nine-candidate Democratic primary field.

"If people felt new leadership was needed, the change would have taken place in the primary," he said.

Still, D'Adamo acknowledged that the incumbents are worried about Santoni's challenge.

"We're not taking [the race] lightly," he said. "We're concerned about money and name recognition. He's made us campaign."

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