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Campaign Beat

Right Means Might?

GOP Eyes 1st and 6th to Break Democrats' Council Stranglehold

By Michael Anft | Posted 10/6/1999

Over the past half-century, the City Council has, in many respects, become a more diverse place. It has included African-Americans and Jews, a disabled member, and a handful of politicians who could charitably be called "characters." But the 19-person body hasn't had a Republican since the end of Daniel Ellison's final term in the midst of World War II.

The GOP's presence in modern municipal politics can be measured only by its absence. Except for the two four-year terms (1943-1947 and 1963-1967) of liberal Mayor Theodore McKeldin—a Republican in name only, most right-wingers acknowledge—the party has been shut out of Baltimore's formerly machine-driven political system for 56 years. Even now, with most Democratic clubs on the wane and much of the electorate fed up with the city's condition, there seems to be no groundswell of support for conservative causes or their espousers. And with city Democrats outflanking their Republicans counterparts by more than 220,000 registered voters, winning elected office in Baltimore is "the political equivalent of "The Impossible Dream,'" says Western Maryland College political-science professor Herb Smith, a longtime watcher of city politics.

Despite all that, Republicans believe their long municipal nightmare is ending—that they'll wake up Nov. 3 with at least one council seat. And apparently, for the first time in years, their competitors feel they have reason to worry. Democratic Party operatives say special efforts will be made to get the vote out in the 1st and 6th districts, where supermarket owner Robert Santoni and bank vice president Joseph Brown Jr., respectively, are considered by GOP leaders to be fair bets to unseat incumbents. Both are well known in their communities—Santoni because of the Highlandtown supermarket his family has run for 69 years (and through which 23,000 customers pass weekly, the candidate notes), Brown through his unsuccessful but impressive 1995 run for a council seat and his leadership of the Washington Village/Pigtown Empowerment Zone board.

GOP observers acknowledge that hard work and name recognition alone probably won't be enough to put Santoni and Brown over the top. "Fortunately, there are issues that can help both of them," says Doug Munro, president of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research, a conservative Baltimore-based think tank. Munro says he has urged Brown, who sits on Calvert's board, to focus on "education, education, education. Joe's big thing is school choice, which probably is a good choice as a main issue for all Republicans running in the city."

In the 6th, where African-American voters hold a slim majority, the school choice/ voucher issue "especially resonates," Munro contends. In a 1997 Calvert-sponsored survey of 309 people who had recently moved out of Baltimore, 92 percent of black respondents said they would have stayed given the choice to send their kids to private or parochial schools. (The figure for whites was 55 percent.) "Clearly, school choice means more to many in our black communities," Munro says.

Brown, who collected 3,300 votes in his 1995 run, has been highlighting his education and economic-development plans on the campaign trail, which for him has included visits to the homes of some 4,500 probable voters. He has also taken aim at Democratic incumbents Norman Handy, Edward Reisinger, and Melvin Stukes for what he calls "their lack of responsiveness" in the district.

"We need change. We need good jobs for our people down here," Brown says. He says that on the council he would push for redevelopment of the Carroll-Camden Industrial Park to create jobs in "the $10- to $18-per-hour range."

Brown has received considerable backing from national political-action committees that back Republicans and African-American candidates, and help from two-time GOP gubernatorial candidate Ellen Sauerbrey (to the tune of $4,250).

Although Brown ran fourth in 1995 to the trio that currently represents the 6th, the incumbents aren't taking him lightly, Handy says: "All of us are taking his challenge as more than perfunctory, particularly me." An escalation of the Democratic-to-Republican "crossover" vote rate of 15 percent in 1995 worries the council member. As does that $30,000 Brown has raised, more than any of his Democratic opponents. (The closest to him is Stukes, who's raised $29,000) "Along with his money and his name recognition, we have to be concerned that he may get some Democratic support," Handy says.

Santoni also wouldn't mind some cross-party support, but he won't need as much of it as Brown. The 1st has a higher concentration of Republican voters than any other district—about 7,400 out of 50,000. While the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, some observers say Santoni could win largely on the GOP vote if Democratic turnout for the Nov. 2 election is low.

"The 1st is easier territory for the Republicans because it's predominately white, and many of those whites have voted for Republicans at the top of the ticket," says Western Maryland's Smith, citing Sauerbrey's success in the district during her two runs for governor, and Ronald Reagan's winning the 1st in his presidential re-election bid in 1984. "If Democrats are complacent there, they might get surprised."

In a bid to forestall any GOP advances, frequently fractious Democratic incumbents John Cain, Nicholas D'Adamo Jr., and Lois Garey are running as a ticket, as they did in winning the Democratic primary. According to party sources, the team was not a certainty to stay together for the general election, largely because of internal friction and D'Adamo's friendship with Santoni. (In 1997, when Santoni's supermarket on East Lombard Street was closed by the city Health Department for mouse infestation, D'Adamo interceded on the store's behalf.) D'Adamo can probably best afford to go it alone—he is consistently the district's top vote-getter, and Cain and Garey are considered more vulnerable—but party loyalty prevailed. "We have to take Bob Santoni seriously—as a serious challenge," D'Adamo said recently.

Like Brown, Santoni champions school vouchers—"What we're doing now in this city isn't working," he says. He also takes up economic-development strategies based around the renovation and marketing of the former Esskay meat-packing plant, a pet project of Santoni's during his years as a community activist. True to his conservative roots, Santoni favors cutting the property-tax rate in half for city denizens. (The cut would apply only to owner-occupied homes.) "We can do it just by cutting 3 percent of the city budget—about $55 million—in waste," he asserts. "I would use it as a tool to help the city compete for residents by making it cheaper for them to live here." Santoni also says he backed zero-tolerance policing, the pet policy of Democratic mayoral nominee Martin O'Malley, "long before O'Malley entered the race."

While Santoni, his backers (among them members of bakery magnate/hotel developer John Paterakis' family and numerous companies involved in the grocery business), and party faithful contend that the GOP's chances of breaking onto council have improved, not everyone is convinced. Despite the prominence of some challengers, Herb Smith says, "the Republicans are a bad percentage bet.

"But having said that," he adds, "these council races are done retail: You get the votes out one by one. If the Democrats haven't gotten their votes out . . ."

Also running on the Republican side for council seats are Michael McNamara in the 1st; Charles Baskerville Jr. and Brian Jones in the 2nd; Michael Matthei and Hal Riedl in the 3rd; Victor Clark Jr., Jeffrey Smith Jr., and Joseph Ward in the 4th; Peter Dubyoski and Sanford Horn in the 5th; and Anthony Forlenza and Joe Tebo Jr. in the 6th.

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