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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Rounding up the usual suspects

The trouble with the race for mayor is that one of the candidates is going to win

By Sally B. Donnelly/Baltimore

August 30, 1999
Web posted at: 12:00 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT)

TIME magazine

For the citizens of beleaguered Baltimore, channel surfing this season is an exercise in confusion. Is that the mayoral debate or America's Most Wanted? Of the 27 original candidates for mayor, six have criminal-arrest records, three have filed for bankruptcy, and one is a convict. Last month Dorothy Jennings, who entered the race on the strength of her claim to be "a churchgoer with 30 years experience in education," was spotted by the police during a televised forum and hauled in to face a burglary rap. (A trial is set for December.)

The question is not why these people are running but what shape the city will take that will be run by the winner of the Sept. 14 Democratic primary--the vote that counts in this one-party town. Maryland's largest city seems to have more razor wire and abandoned buildings than Kosovo. Meanwhile, the prevalence of open-air drug dealing has made no loitering signs as common as stop signs. Baltimore, which has a population of 630,000, has sunk under the depressing triple crown of urban degradation: middle-income residents are fleeing at a rate of 1,000 a month; the murder rate has been more than three times as high as New York City's; and 1 of every 10 citizens is a drug addict. Government officials dispute the last claim. "It's more like 1 in 8," says veteran city councilwoman Rikki Spector. "And we've probably lost count."

Do the candidates know what city they are hoping to run? City council president Lawrence Bell, whom staff members often refer to as the "President," put out a lovely campaign brochure featuring his smiling mug, happy schoolchildren, a calculator and those picturesque Victorian town houses of, um, San Francisco. Bell, 37, may aspire to be Willie Brown, but so far all he has is the suits. Bell dropped a cool $4,323 of campaign money on clothes from Saks Fifth Avenue, which does not have a store in Baltimore. He has plummeted from gregarious front runner to press-shy third-place trailer, in part by feebly trying to use racial tactics to slam a white challenger. He told a black crowd to vote for him because "I look like you," which went over as well as Linda Tripp's "I am you" line. But he looked oh-so-smooth doing it. You can check out Bell's new pinstripes as he walks the campaign trail. The repo man came and got his Mustang a couple weeks back.

At least Bell has a shot. Most of the two dozen other wannabes are in the race so they can get a "real" job. Or at least an indoor job, as in the case of Republican Roberto Marsili, a stone mason who boasts of an eighth-grade diploma. Democrat A. Robert Kaufman, an intelligent, balding man whose socialist solutions prompted an opponent to call him Lenin, campaigns nonstop and doesn't seem to have a paycheck to miss. The Rev. Jessica Davis, who refers to herself in the third person as either "Jessica Davis" or "the next mayor of Baltimore," says "international travel" has given her the background to govern the city. Wonder where, exactly, she has been?

How did Baltimore get here? The smokestack economy that was the lifeblood of this city for decades has died and drained its money and its soul. In 1940 half of Maryland's population lived--and, more important, worked--in Baltimore. Today only 15% live there. Meanwhile, increasingly incompetent political factions have elbowed each other for state handouts. The reign of current mayor Kurt Schmoke, an Ivy League-educated African American, was supposed to restore the power of the mayor's job and the health of the city. Instead, Schmoke has spent his 12 years ineffectively lording it over an ever increasing mess.

Citizens put some hope in the two front runners: Carl Stokes, 49, and Martin O'Malley, 36. Stokes is a bespectacled, mild-mannered former councilman who seems to have trouble with full disclosure. Last week he was forced to acknowledge that he had failed to pay income taxes for four years and eventually had to shell out $19,000 to the IRS. O'Malley, a former councilman and federal prosecutor, has so far emerged with his finances and schoolwork in order. But, hey, don't bet on anyone--the politics of Baltimore are as grim as the city itself.


Cover Date: September 6, 1999

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