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All elections haven't been as dull as this one

The advent of Tuesday's primary election in Baltimore brings to mind some past elections that were a lot more exciting than the city's contest is this year.

Not that Tuesday's polling will be without precedent and curiosity.

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Sixteen-year-olds will be voting for the first time; the last, too, one hopes. The most important question is not who will be the next mayor; it's who will be the next president of the City Council. That's because, believe as they may in all other matters, the one thing everybody does not believe is that Mayor Martin O'Malley will be able to resist the temptation to leave City Hall before the end of his term to run for another office. That would make the next City Council president the next mayor.

So the most interesting thing about Tuesday's primary vote is not in the results, but what they portend.

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One thing has not changed in the 33 years since I covered my first election for The Sun. The Democratic primary decides who gets the office; not the general election. That's because voter registration in Baltimore has been overwhelmingly Democratic for generations. A Republican hasn't been elected to city office since Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin won his last term as mayor in 1963.

The first election I covered for The Sun was in 1970, the first midterm election of the Nixon administration and the election for all state offices from governor to members of party central committees. The results were stunning, and in some cases crazy.

One headline that appeared in The Sun the day after the election pretty much summed up what had happened: "Liberals, Reformers, Negroes gain in General Assembly."

The state legislature wasn't the only place where the old guard was heaved out. Parren J. Mitchell won the Democratic Party nomination for a seat in Congress from the 7th District, virtually guaranteeing he would become Maryland's first black congressman. That was stunning. Almost as stunning was that he knocked off Samuel Friedel, a nine-term veteran and stalwart of the political machine of James H. "Jack" Pollack. (Pollack's machine took another blow that night when the people he controlled in Baltimore's 5th District lost their seats on the Democratic State Central Committee.)

Milton B. Allen, a fiery criminal defense attorney and former Baltimore prosecutor, won the Democratic nomination for Baltimore state's attorney. He became the city's first black state's attorney. One news account of the time reported that he was thus the first black district attorney in the nation.

Paul Sarbanes, a reform-minded liberal from the House of Delegates, beat 13-term Rep. George Fallon (after whom the federal office building in downtown Baltimore is named). Sarbanes was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976. He's still there, in case you haven't noticed.

The 1970 primary election went on far beyond election day itself because some of the stunned losers would not accept what had happened. In the official tally, Friedel lost to Mitchell by only 38 votes. In a city where any smart candidate could get that number of votes from the cemetery, Friedel could not be blamed for challenging. He did not formally admit defeat until Oct. 5 - 20 days after the primary.

What was crazy about the election of 1970? Lots.

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In those days, the city Police Department was responsible for the initial tally of votes. That year most of the job was contracted out to an outfit that hired 100 women to come in and do the counting. The women were told they would have to work from 8 p.m. to midnight, which would make sense in an election where there would be no surprises.

At midnight, the husbands of most of the women arrived to take their wives home and at the height of one of the hottest elections in the city's history, more than half of the counters walked off the job to go home.

The 1970 primary also produced the first election day since the repeal of Prohibition on which liquor was allowed to be sold while the polls were open. This was because the name of a Republican candidate had been left off the ballot in seven wards in Roland Park. So, on Oct. 18, a special election was held in those seven wards just for Republicans to select their choice for the hopeless task of challenging Sarbanes in the general election.

Alonzo's, one of Roland Park's most popular watering holes, fought for and won the right to serve liquor that day, without any discernible effect on the outcome of the election.

Speaking of liquor on election day, a tradition existed in the newsroom of The Sun in those days that after the last results were set in the last edition, the managing editor would crack open the liquor.

The election night liquor tradition has been abandoned, although reform in this matter took at least a decade longer than political reform in the state.

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A pooh-bah who was not from The Sunpapers tradition decided it was unwise to ply the newsroom staff with booze after an 18-hour day that would end in their trying to drive home. That makes sense.

Certainly, by then, all the other unhealthful elements of the newsroom environment had disappeared: the pipes, cigars and cigarettes; the deafening din of the wireroom teletype machines; the bell clanging loudly to announce a fire somewhere in the city; the clatter of typewriters and the shouts of editors trying to be heard over the cacophony.

Too bad, really. It was rather grand. And election night could be the grandest night of them all.


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