TUESDAY'S PRIMARY election in Baltimore will be a tribute to grass-roots activism - and its aftermath will prove again why citizens get frustrated with politics.
The voters have gotten too little credit for their overhaul of city government. They rebuilt the City Council, overcoming entrenched opposition and forcing some of the opponents out of the game by downsizing from 18 to 14 members and by making it possible to demand more accountability. It'll be harder for the members to hide behind their district colleagues and easier to think about the welfare of the city as a whole.
Sadly, all the fruits of reform will remain unharvested for 14 months because Democratic Party leaders in Annapolis and Baltimore refused to agree on an election calendar. Instead of the usual six-week general election campaign, this one may set a longevity record for municipal elections in the United States: A 14-month interregnum will follow Tuesday's voting because the General Assembly, led by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, would not move the primary date closer to the general election date in 2004.
Baltimore will have, in effect, two councils: a lame-duck council and a council in waiting, or shadow council. It's a wholly unnecessary weakening of government and of the voters' already lagging confidence. If elected officials could allow such a travesty, they were more committed to their own petty agendas than to good government. No wonder voters were desperate for some kind of reform. It's a minor miracle that all civic impulse did not wither and die.
It's the last thing this council needed. Over the last twenty years or so, the City Council has spiraled below irrelevance into the realm of silly embarrassment. Recent disclosures of nepotism, special favors eagerly accepted by elected representatives and the all-too-frequent failure to vote on important issues made the council overdue for overhaul if not elimination. Not worth a bucket of warm spit, as John Nance Garner once said of the vice presidency. The best argument ever for the divine right of kings, said some council baiter years ago.
And yet the council has had exemplary members: Peter G. Angelos, the Orioles owner; the late Solomon Liss, who went on to serve on the Court of Appeals; Clarence H. Du Burns, the folksy East Baltimore leader who became the city's first black mayor; and William Donald Schaefer, who served on the council for 15 years before he was mayor, governor and comptroller.
We've had derisive jokes and frustrated talk but no action - until the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and others offered the ballot initiative now known as Question P, a proposal to downsize from six three-member districts to 14 with a single member. Almost anything new might have passed if anything could get on the ballot. The incumbent (or recumbent) council apparently knew this and tried to block the effort. Fortunately, the maneuver failed, and Tuesday the city will take another step toward its remarkable makeover. The new council will have a chance to be relevant - or respectable, at least.
Candidates for virtually very office - a better lot of hopefuls overall - have dutifully paid their respects to Question P at every opportunity. Already, the new council structure has resulted in turnover: Four incumbents chose not to run again. In two of the new districts, incumbents are facing incumbents, so the overall number of holdovers will be reduced by at least seven. The old system made it harder for challengers to win, but the new one has encouraged talented newcomers to return for at least one more hurrah. For the first time in years, the council might be energized, smart and prepared to help the mayor with its votes and differing points of view. A healthy ferment could be in the works.
So, the voters who gave themselves half a revolution may want to complete the job by turning out in force on Tuesday. And then they will have an even more challenging task: keeping their newly elected council on its edge of eagerness, ready to serve, ready to think in the new electoral box they created. Individuals and institutions such as the League of Women Voters, the Greater Baltimore Committee, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development and ACORN can be part of this transition support operation.
People have taken back the council, but as the saying goes, it's not an event, it's a process.
A personal note: Aug. 29 was my last day as an employee of The Sun after almost 27 years. I've moved on to WYPR-FM (88.1), Baltimore's public radio station. I'll still be writing my Sunday column, though, so please stay tuned.
C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. He can be reached via e-mail at FSmith@WYPR.org. His column appears Sundays.