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Long walks in a tight city race

The Baltimore Sun

He wore white Reeboks, she had on black Masai Barefoot Technology sandals. In the race for City Council president, the tightest citywide contest, maybe the winner should get a shoe endorsement deal as well.

While every candidate was, or should have been, pounding the pavement during the long holiday weekend, Michael Sarbanes and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake probably had the most to gain. The Sun's latest poll shows the council presidency candidates locked in a too-close-to-call race, with Sarbanes attracting the support of 33 percent of voters and Rawlings-Blake just 3 percentage points behind.

With the mayoral contest seemingly much more settled at this point - Sheila Dixon has 46 percent support to Keiffer Mitchell's 19 percent, according to the poll - the race for council presidency has become the race to watch. I spent some time this weekend tailing Rawlings-Blake and Sarbanes (my own footwear: Nike Barrettes), to get a sense of the two candidates who, despite having familiar names, are both running their first citywide races.

The son of the retired but long-serving U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes and the daughter of the late and also long-serving Del. Howard Rawlings, they both hear many variations on what one woman called out, in this case to Michael Sarbanes, at the Cadillac Parade on Saturday: "Your daddy was good people."

The younger Sarbanes is an energetic candidate, a glad-hander who introduces himself to anyone in his path, from Jehovah's Witnesses also out knocking on doors on Saturday morning to glowering teenagers standing on a corner.

Often, he needs no introduction. At Mondawmin Mall, in Reservoir Hill, at the Cadillac Parade in Penn-North, he kept running into people he knew - a kid who recognizes him as a former classmate's father, a woman who used to live in his Irvington neighborhood, various people he has worked with over the years as a community and housing activist.

"I've seen him around," Bobby Brown, 44, who shook Sarbanes' hand at the parade, said approvingly. "He's out in the community a lot."

Sarbanes' schtick this weekend was to walk the entire city - "Hilton to Hamilton" on Saturday, when he went from the West Baltimore street to the Northeast neighborhood, and "Hills to Mountaintops" yesterday, meaning Cherry and Federal hills in South Baltimore, then northwest to Mount Washington. But, truth be told, with his propensity to stop and talk, more than once he hopped into a car and rode to a couple of events, having gotten so off his schedule he would have missed them even with his fast pace of walking.

Trying to make a service at a synagogue, he walks past someone outside a corner store trying to sell him some electronic gizmo. He is halfway down the block when she calls after him, "What are you going to do about drug addicts?" He lopes back for a quick discussion about more treatment programs, which sends a tear down her cheek.

Still, even as many of the questions he gets fall along those lines - what are you going to do about crime, schools, you name the problem - he remains upbeat and true to what he says is the message of his campaign.

He tells a story about last weekend, when he helped clear brush that was covering a mural on the side of a school. He cut down a bush, he said, and uncovered part of the mural that said "Peace." More cutting revealed "Hope." And still more produced "Save our children."

"Sometimes," he concludes, "the city speaks to you."

Rawlings-Blake is a little less heart-on-the-sleeve, a more guarded and businesslike campaigner with a low voice and a desultory style. If she's feeling the heat from Sarbanes' challenge, she's not showing it.

"It's about turnout now, but it's also a culmination of a lot of my efforts," Rawlings-Blake said of the final days of campaigning. "I've spent a lot of time doing something I never cared to do - promote what I've done. The fact is, I've got a clear vision for the city and also the capacity to deliver."

On this particular afternoon, she is plying much the same area - around the southwest corner of Druid Hill Park - as Sarbanes did earlier in the day. A group of family, friends and campaign workers spreads out through the neighborhood, handing out fliers and asking for permission to put signs in windows, calling Rawlings-Blake over to residents and business owners who agree to take a sign or have a question for her.

Some of the stops seem rather fruitless: An Asian man who doesn't speak much English seems either baffled or alarmed by her request to put a campaign sign in his dry-cleaners window next to one for Dixon; a hair braider silently casts pointed looks at this candidate who came into her salon but instead of making a pitch for support, immediately sat down to take what turns out to be an extended cell phone call.

As the incumbent - Rawlings-Blake took over the council presidency in January after Dixon became mayor - people tend to want something from her. One woman asks about getting a job, another wants more recreation facilities for her son, yet another complains about garbage and a boarded-up property that rats run in and out of. Rawlings-Blake fills up the margins of a couple of her fliers writing names, phone numbers and issues, and says she'll give them to her staff for follow-up.

"Girl, you in. You and your homegirl got that on lock," Kimberly Albright, 44, tells her. Albright said she is impressed with the work Rawlings-Blake and Dixon have done since they have been in office.

Rawlings-Blake seems to take Dixon's campaign as seriously as her own - they have endorsed each other. As she headed to a block party on Francis Street, she met a couple of people who said they would vote for her but not Dixon, and she took time to persuade at least one of them to vote for the mayor.

Like Sarbanes, Rawlings-Blake also runs into familiar faces as she campaigns. There's much squealing and hugging and wondering out loud about a friend named Muffy when she comes across a classmate from Western High School, back in town over the weekend from her home in Pittsburgh.

With a what-can-you-say shrug, Rawlings-Blake says, "It's Smalltimore."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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