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Party Hardy

Baltimore's Republicans Soldier On, Despite the Odds

Michelle Gienow
Party Central: The Baltimore GOP gathers to eat, drink, and bash Democrats at its annual Lincoln Day dinner.
Former mayoral hopeful David Tufaro says the GOP needs to recruit charismatic African-American candidates to break the Democratic hammerlock on city politics.
Republican Central Committee chair Victor Clark Jr. Is the party's chief local cheerleader.
The Rev. John Heath, pastor of the House Of Mercy Church in North Baltimore and a former aide to Democratic politicians, switched parties to run for House of Delegates.
Following his unsuccessful City Council bid in 1999, Joseph Ward is taking on Democratic U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings.
Republican Andrew White is mulling a run for Baltimore city state's attorney.
State GOP chairperson Mich'l Steele (left) wins cheers from the party faithful for his Lincoln Day dinner keynote speech.
"It's not about abortion, not about ideological issues," 1999 City Council candidate Joseph Brown says of local Republicans' efforts to woo city voters. "It's about the kitchen-table issues."
Robert Santoni, the top vote-getting Republican in the '99 council race, says his strategy is to "put the candidate in front of the party," focusing on community activism rather than partisanship.

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 6/19/2002

Baltimore City's Republicans are gathered on the 21st floor of downtown's World Trade Center for their annual Lincoln Day dinner. It's a clear May evening, the harbor lights twinkle below, but the GOP faithful aren't spending much time admiring the view.

They have other things to talk about: U.S. Rep. Robert Ehrlich's gubernatorial race against Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend; the resurrection of Helen Delich Bentley, running to reclaim her old congressional seat (which Ehrlich currently holds). More quietly, they discuss city elections, in which their hopes are slightly less dim than in the recent past. An initiative to restructure the City Council into single-member districts is making its way, signature by signature, toward this fall's general0-election ballot. If the referendum passes, Republican council candidates will no longer have to hurl themselves against impregnable three-Democrat blocs; they will compete one-to-one. It's almost too much to hope for.

Generally speaking, the view for city Republicans is rarely cheerful. Even though loyal party members occupy the top floors of many Baltimore office towers, politically the city has been an exclusively Democratic fiefdom for the last 35 years. Baltimore hasn't had a Republican mayor since Theodore McKeldin's second term ended in 1967, and the last Republican council member left office 60 years ago. In 1999, Republican mayoral nominee David Tufaro waged the city's most vigorous GOP campaign since the '60s and polled a mere 8,865 votes--about a 10th of Democrat Martin O'Malley's count.

One might expect bitterness and gloom in this room, given such a prolonged exile from power. But while some Republicans do give vent to bleak sentiments in interviews, the mood tonight is pleasant enough. No one seems to resent the fact that neither Ehrlich nor Bentley are in attendance. The only candidates working the room--and doing so rather discreetly--are Joseph Ward, long-shot candidate for the 7th Congressional District against Democratic incumbent Elijah Cummings, and Ross Pierpont, retired surgeon and perennial gubernatorial candidate, with his running mate, Sidney Burns. Pierpont clutches a copy of his self-published, aptly named book, Never, Never, Ever Give Up! But the crowd itself is encouraging. L. Patrick Dail, treasurer for the Baltimore City GOP, was expecting about 100 people, but dozens more have shown up. Signing guests in, he expresses mild satisfaction.

The task of revving up the crowd falls to Victor Clark Jr., chairperson of Baltimore's Republican Central Committee since 1998. A car salesperson by profession, Clark takes readily to the role of cheerleader. Beaming, he introduces the party's past and present candidates and various suburban incumbents before passing the podium to Michael Steele, chairperson of the Maryland Republican Party.

Steele's speech touches on several of the city GOP's favorite themes. "Don't let anyone tell us we can't speak to black issues, to Hispanic issues, to women's issues. We defined them long before they came in vogue," he declares, invoking the legacies of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. The Republican Party, he insists, "is not 62-year-old white men, like some people say it is." He reminds listeners that Democratic state Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV, feuding with Gov. Parris Glendening, has endorsed Ehrlich for governor. "We're switching people!" he enthuses.

The usual red-meat Republican issues do not come up, except in the form of a warning. "This election is about winning," Steele says. "It's bigger than abortion, folks. It's bigger than gun control. . . . It's about the family that's sitting in traffic on the way to the grocery store on Saturday." (Steele gets his warmest response, however, with a zinger aimed at Glendening "and his, shall we say, shotgun bride.")

The complexion of Steele's audience seems to lend some support to his claims of a more inclusive GOP. Most of the crowd consists of middle-class white folks, but there is a prominent contingent of African-Americans, including Steele himself (who lives in Prince George's County) and Clark. Ward, the congressional hopeful, is black; so is Joseph Brown Sr., past and (he says) future GOP candidate for City Council in Southwest Baltimore. By Clark's estimate, almost one-quarter of Baltimore's roughly 30,000 registered Republicans are African-American--although the proportion tonight is considerably less than that.

The evening wraps up with a spontaneous and breathtakingly off-key rendition of "America the Beautiful." Clark makes sure that a reporter hears the final head count, as delivered by the caterer: 215.

These are bittersweet times for Baltimore's Republican Party. While the heady aroma of potential victory wafts across the city line from the Ehrlich and Bentley camps in Baltimore County, electoral opportunities within municipal borders are few. The mayor and council are not up for re-election until 2004; the top citywide contest this year is the state's attorney's race, for which the GOP hopes to tap attorney Andrew White. (White is "leaning" toward making the run, Clark says.) Clark says he expects about 15 percent of the slots on the city's Republican ballot to be filled by willing candidates.

Ward, facing the solidly entrenched Cummings in the 7th Congressional District, is in many ways typical of Baltimore Republican candidates in recent decades: earnest, idealistic, articulate--and doomed. This isn't Ward's first electoral sally; he ran for City Council in West Baltimore's 4th District in 1999 and pulled 1,027 votes--third place among GOP candidates. (Catherine Pugh, low scorer among the three Democratic candidates, collected 9,206 votes.) Once before, Ward ran for a council seat as a Democrat. (He switched parties in 1998.) Says one GOP-watcher, with a shake of the head, "Ward's beginning to look like a perennial candidate."

It's not just that humiliating electoral losses seem to be their lot; Baltimore Republicans seem to many to be living oxymorons, worth a smirk at best, actively shunned at worst. Ward tells a story about a boy from his neighborhood, Hunting Ridge in West Baltimore. In 2000, Ward had a sign for then-candidate George W. Bush in his yard. The kid, all of 8 years old, "came up and kicked it and said, 'I hate these people!'"

What keeps Baltimore's Republicans from simply jumping ship or leaving town? What persuades rational, sophisticated people to go against the daunting odds embedded in Baltimore's voter registration (8.6-1 Democratic), demographics (two-thirds African-American, a solidly Democratic voting bloc), and history--to be, as former GOP mayoral candidate David Tufaro puts it, "stupid enough to run"?

"It takes courage and a lot of intestinal fortitude [for Republicans] to hang in there and keep fighting the good fight," says Barry Rascovar, a former political columnist for The Sun. Former council hopeful Joseph Brown is less dramatic and more blunt: "It takes a thick skin."

Or, some might say, a hard shell. Much like the tiny, ultra-minority parties of the American left, Baltimore's Republicans in recent decades have tended toward idealism--career underdogs sustained by strong convictions and scornful of compromise and raw politics. "Republicans would rather be right than elected," David Blumberg, chairperson of the city's Republican Central Committee from 1982 to 1998, says ruefully. "It's humorous sometimes. . . . Maryland Republicans have a history of fighting over the best cell in the penitentiary."

Decades of electoral failure have also stymied the city GOP's efforts at fund-raising. While the national Republican Party has enjoyed massive support from corporate political action committees and wealthy businesspeople, the city's GOP candidates go begging--with little success. Blumberg complains bitterly that the Baltimore business community turned its back on Tufaro--one of their own, a successful real-estate developer who campaigned on a business-friendly, lower-taxes agenda.

"When you have a candidate of that caliber, and the business community decides you're not going to win . . . what kind of signal does that send to other potential candidates?" Blumberg says. He acknowledges, though, that it is a "chicken-or-egg situation": Candidates without money can't win; candidates perceived as losers don't get money. The party faithful, beaten again and again, become the resentful.

That may explain why the GOP's brightest electoral hopes this year are pinned not to a past candidate finally breaking through the Democratic ranks, but to a candidate who until recently was part of the Democratic ranks--the Rev. John Heath, candidate for House of Delegates in the 43rd District.

A Baptist pastor in the poverty-ridden Penn-Lucy neighborhood south of Govans, Heath didn't attend the Lincoln Day reception May 13, mainly because he hadn't yet declared himself a Republican. Two weeks later, the 33-year-old minister, a one-time aide to such prominent local Democrats as Cummings and Clarence Mitchell IV, announced his campaign at a press conference, surrounded by GOP regulars.

Heath is everything the city Republican Party believes it needs to finally reverse its fortunes--young, energetic, black. The Ehrlich campaign, which is aggressively courting African-American leaders, has embraced the new guy like an old friend. Because Heath faces no competition within the GOP, the state party--which stays neutral in contested intraparty races--has offered him help in advance of the Sept. 10 primary.

Is this whirlwind romance a sign of desperation, or of a much-needed new direction? Baltimore Times associate publisher Anthony McCarthy, a former aide to Democratic City Council President Sheila Dixon and a close observer of city politics, thinks Heath represents the wave of the future.

"John has the Republican label," McCarthy says, "but he speaks to what I consider moderate Afrocentric issues--crime, drugs, housing." If voters support support the City Council-restructuring referendum, he predicts, "don't be surprised if you see young, professional African-Americans Republicans running for office in the city, challenging the establishment in single-member districts."

Viewed in the context of national politics--where Republicans control the executive branch, the House of Representatives, and (disclaimers aside) the Supreme Court--the GOP's presence in Baltimore seems almost absurdly puny, like the tiny front claws of Tyrannosaurus rex. As with the dinosaur's atrophied forelegs, the withering-away of Baltimore's two-party system was a product of natural selection--the result of a struggle for dominance in a dramatically shifting political environment.

In the late 19th century, Baltimore's Republican Party rode to power on a wave of reform. Democrats, long dominant in the slave-holding South, had held on to their electoral edge in Baltimore throughout the 1870s and '80s, despite post-Civil War Republican administrations in Washington and the enfranchisement of black male voters, then loyal to "the party of Lincoln." Eventually, the Democrats' entrenched power gave rise to corruption, in the form of the infamous statewide political machine of Arthur Pue Gorman and his Baltimore-based partner, Isaac Freeman Rasin. In the 1890s, reformers in the Democratic ranks rebelled against Gorman and Rasin, the party splintered, and city elections in 1895 swept Republican Alcaeus Hooper into the mayor's office.

The following year, city voters favored Republican congressional candidates by lopsided margins and helped elect Maryland's first Republican governor, Lloyd Lowndes. (National politics may have had a hand in this shift: Republican William McKinley trounced the fiery, controversial Democratic populist William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 presidential election.) In 1897, William Malster became the city's second Republican mayor (mayors served two-year terms at the time), winning 52 percent of the vote to his Democratic opponent's 44 percent. The same split, give or take a few points, occurred in other citywide races.

A significant factor in the GOP's favor was the growth of a black electorate loyal to the legacy of the Great Emancipator. This phenomenon certainly contributed to record-setting political participation throughout Maryland: More than 87 percent of all eligible voters took part in the presidential election of 1896, a turnout record that still stands.

Democrats lashed back, targeting the black electorate. Maryland's Democratic Party promoted a variety of schemes to disenfranchise and intimidate black voters. Understandably, blacks in Maryland remained loyal to the GOP, although the party tended to take their votes for granted. While Baltimore as a whole again favored Democratic candidates for governor and other state offices in 1899, Republicans narrowly won in 1900's local congressional races.

As the 20th century progressed, Republicans remained a significant force in Maryland and a fighting minority in the city, in large part because black Baltimoreans remained steadfast. All six African-Americans who managed to win election to the City Council between 1890 and 1930 were Republicans.

With the Great Depression, though, the local party began its long march from fighting minority to virtual invisibility. The root cause was again national: President Herbert Hoover and his fellow Republicans were blamed for the economic dislocation, paving the way for the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. From 1928 to 1932, the Democrats' edge in Baltimore voter registration swelled from 66,000 to 93,000. The New Deal wooed millions of distressed Americans into the Democratic fold, creating the most durable electoral coalition in the history of U.S. politics. By 1936, African-American voters had shifted massively to the Democrats--not due to any particular attention by Roosevelt to racial issues, but because of his dramatic efforts to create jobs and redistribute wealth. The war-driven industrial explosion of the 1940s further cemented the Democrats' dominance in major cities, largely thanks to pro-Democratic union organizing.

Other factors helped to marginalize the city's Republicans. Old-fashioned, patronage-based political machines, built on neighborhood and ethnic ties, ensured that Democratic affiliation passed from house to house and generation to generation. (In a 1986 interview, Clarence "Du" Burns, then president of the City Council, acknowledged that he registered as a Democrat in his youth because that party paid more vote-promoting "walking-around money" at election time.) In the 1960s, the national Democratic Party's embraced civil rights and integration, affronting white "Dixiecrats" but securing the loyalty of an overwhelming majority of African-Americans, including many black Baltimoreans who were still registered Republicans. (McKeldin, the last Republican to win city office, bucked the national GOP and supported integration.) Meanwhile, the flight of wealthy and middle-class whites from the city whittled away at the Republicans' base.

Arthur Murphy, a Democratic Party activist and the son of William Murphy, a prominent black judge who left the Republican party in 1964, believes the GOP missed its last chance at mainstream black voters when Richard Nixon was president. At the time, about half of Baltimore's resident Republicans were African-Americans. "Nixon had the best shot [with blacks] because he was the most liberal Republican we ever had in the White House," Murphy says, citing Nixon's interest in a national health-care system and his administration's promotion of affirmative action and a "black capitalism" program. But while Nixon instituted programs that were beneficial to poor and working-class Americans, he and his vice president--former Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew--alienated black voters with law-and-order rhetoric designed to appeal to conservative white Southerners.

By the mid-1970s, city Republicans were an election-year footnote, with Democratic primaries routinely drawing more voters than general elections. Then came the "Reagan Revolution" of the 1980s, which consolidated the power of the GOP's ideological right wing and, Murphy says, "closed the door to competing ideas within the party." Reaganite rhetoric, while never explicitly racist, was nonetheless coded to appeal to resentful white voters, with its call to dismantle welfare and anti-poverty programs "and the whole bootstrap mentality--as if people had bootstraps to begin with," Murphy says. "Any hope was gone with Reagan."

The issues at the forefront of the recent-vintage Republican agenda "have not been compelling for African-Americans," ex-Sun pundit Rascovar says. "How they rebuild [the black vote] is the story of the party." He credits Ehrlich for making an effort; every Sunday the gubernatorial candidate has been making campaign stops at black churches, especially in Baltimore City and Prince George's County. But "Ehrlich can't win unless he creates African-American Republicans in substantial numbers," Rascovar says. "He has to come up with issues that resonate with the African-American community."

This is something the city GOP clearly hasn't managed. Baltimore Republicans' minor-league status puts the party in a Catch-22. As Rascovar notes, the party "can't establish credibility without having high-caliber candidates on the ballot, election after election." But it can't attract high-caliber candidates because they don't have a prayer of winning. (Rascovar counsels persistence: "You have to remember that Helen Bentley didn't win her congressional fight until the third time out." Of course, Bentley was running in a suburban district that had elected Republicans in the recent past.) The last "blue-ribbon candidate" the GOP fielded in the city, Rascovar says, was prominent attorney Richard Bennett, who challenged then-state Sen. John Pica in 1982--and lost 2-1.

If Republicans haven't been gaining ground in Baltimore, they have at least benefited from the Democrats losing ground, due to some of the same forces that buffeted the GOP in decades past. Blumberg notes that when he took over leadership of the Central Committee in 1982 the city's ratio of Democrats to Republicans was about 11-1. When he stepped down in 1998, it was 8-1. "It's not that I did anything great," he says. "Our registration has held pretty steady at 30,000, but the Democratic registration has shrunk dramatically because of flight out of the city."

Clark, Blumberg's successor, says the party has set a goal of boosting registration to 50,000 by 2004. But registration may not be the best measure of GOP clout, or lack of it. What matters is how many voters actually go to the polls. "We can't register our way out of this," Clark says. To get elected, a Baltimore Republican needs votes from Democrats.

Nowhere does that seem more possible than the City Council's 1st District. Covering portions of South and East Baltimore, the largely blue-collar district is demographically similar to neighboring Dundalk in Baltimore County, heavily populated with conservative, working-class Democrats who seem to have no problem crossing party lines when it comes to presidential races. Robert Santoni Sr., the second-generation owner of Santoni's grocery store in Highlandtown, ran for council from the 1st in the 1999 city election and was one of the most successful Republicans on the ballot (only the comptroller and City Council president GOP hopefuls polled higher percentages).

"Successful," in this context, is a relative term: Santoni was backed by 6,831 voters, 14 percent of those who went to the polls; incumbent Democrats John Cain, Nicholas D'Adamo Jr., and Lois Garey won between 11,000 and 13,000 votes apiece. Admittedly an optimist, Santoni treasures rose-colored memories of that race: "Oh, it was so close!" But he did succeed in painting himself as a viable candidate, and Democrats took notice. He says his second campaign began two days after his first ended in defeat and he is confident that he can breach the Democratic barricades next time around.

Santoni knows that he'll need a heavy crossover vote to win. To get it, he says, he needs to "put the candidate in front of the party"--even if "my party isn't going to be too happy about that." He speaks warmly of such stalwart Baltimore Democrats as O'Malley and U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski. He says he works closely with state Sen. Perry Sfikas (D-46th District) on community projects. On the night of city Republicans' Lincoln Day dinner, Santoni was represented by his wife, Cathy; he was attending a Sfikas fund-raiser.

Rather than partisanship, Santoni bases his political strategy on high-visibility community activism, seizing the initiative on backyard issues he says elected officials have overlooked. He takes credit for a recent drive to improve street lighting around Highlandtown, and for getting the Smithfield Cos., owner of the vacant Esskay plant in East Baltimore, to donate the site to the Essex Community College Foundation, on the board of which Santoni serves. The foundation sold the site to H&S Bakery, which is already turning out bread there. Eventually, Santoni says, the bakery will employ about 300 workers.

"You tell me why the City Council can't come up with ideas like that," he says. "I'm a friend to my community and my fellow citizens. They see more of me than they do of their councilman."

City Republicans believe, almost as an article of faith, that there is a deep well of discontent among city voters with those Democratic councilmen and -women--and that the tool for tapping it is single-member districts.

Since 1923, the 18 council members have been elected three at a time from six districts. (The council president runs citywide.) In 1984 and in 1991, the GOP succeeded in petitioning a city-charter amendment to establish single-member districts on the city ballot, but both referenda failed at the polls. Blumberg says Democrats were able to portray them as Republican vote-getting ploys rather than genuine electoral reform.

This year, the referendum drive is being led by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters and backed by grass-roots and largely left-of-center groups--including public-employee unions, the Baltimore Green Party, and activist outfits such as ACORN (Association of Communities for Reform Now). It's hard to imagine a less Republican collective, but the groups share one thing with the city GOP--a desire to challenge the existing Democratic establishment. Proponents of single-member districts maintain they would produce more accountable, less insulated council members. For Republicans, there are other advantages: Lone GOP candidates would no longer have to face three-person Democratic tickets, as typically happens today; districts would be smaller and thus elections less costly; and the actual ballot, with fewer names on it, would be less confusing for voters.

To get the amendment on the fall ballot the referendum organizers need to get 10,000 signatures from registered Baltimore City voters, validated by the city Board of Elections. Proponents have delivered the first set of petitions, with more than 10,000 signatures, to elections officials and are trying to collect another 10,000 by the end of July, to allow plenty of margin for error, says Millie Tyssowski, who is coordinating the drive for the League of Women Voters. The GOP is deliberately keeping a low profile on the initiative, lest the Democrats try to paint as, in Clark's words, "a Republican trick."

Maryland on the whole has a history of electing Republicans who are strikingly moderate and independent, even in the post-Reagan era. Popular longtime congresspersons Connie Morella and Wayne Gilchrist represent a tradition of middle-ground GOP pols that harks back to Baltimore's McKeldin and former U.S. Sen. Charles "Mac" Mathias. Baltimore's Republican leaders mostly hail from this wing of the party--the wing that has been in retreat in national Republican circles for decades.

What unites Baltimore's Republicans--and keeps them from becoming Democrats, despite differences with the national GOP on some core issues--is the basic credo that free enterprise can do just about anything better than government, and a degree of underdog outrage at what they see as Democratic abuses of power (crystallized by Gov. Parris Glendening's redistricting proposal, characterized by Republicans as a blunt blueprint for electing more Democrats and thrown out earlier this month by the state's highest court). Maryland Republicans are unanimous in their contempt for Glendening and, by extension, Lt. Gov. Townsend.

Tufaro fumes about what he sees as Democratic mismanagement of the city. "They've had their 35 years and, look, it's gone straight downhill," he says, voicing a popular GOP refrain. "You can't blame Republicans for the condition of this city." The Democrats' worst offense, in his view, is excessive taxation, which he says drives both businesses and homeowners out of town.

Throughout his 1999 campaign, Tufaro projected the genial image of a civic-minded businessperson, willing to ascend the scaffold as long as he could use it as a soapbox. "I guess one hopes, given the sad condition of the city, that by running you can get issues raised and discussed. Looking back on it, I'm not sure how productive or valuable that really was," he says. "I'm not sure anybody is listening." He wonders whether he would have made more of an impact by campaigning, as he puts it, "less genteelly." And he voices frustration with what he sees as the unwillingness of Baltimoreans--especially black Baltimoreans--to make changes in government and in their own communities.

"You've got to make them feel guilty about why are they doing this to themselves," Tufaro says. "And that would be very hard for a white candidate."

A novice pol when he ran for mayor, Tufaro has stayed active in party circles but says it is "highly unlikely" he'll seek elective office again. (He is serving as treasurer for, and an informal adviser to, Joseph Ward's congressional campaign.) The GOP's best hope of winning in Baltimore, he believes, lies in fielding charismatic black candidates. His ideal candidate is "an articulate and almost celebrity-type person, the equivalent of Kweisi Mfume on the Democrats' side . . . essentially an African-American candidate who could speak to the question of, 'Why do you keep electing Democrats?'"

A number of black Republicans--Ward among them--seem to be trying to groom themselves for the role Tufaro describes. So far, none have come close to getting elected; the last black Republicans to serve on the Baltimore City Council were Walter Emerson and Warner McGuinn, whose terms expired in 1931.

The current crop of black GOP leaders are, in general, self-made men, suspicious of welfare-state liberalism and of what they see as the Democrats' exploitation of African-American loyalty. (Black women have run as GOP candidates in the past, albeit rarely; Victor Clark names five female Republicans who sought office from Baltimore between 1978 and 1994.) While they differ on specific strategies, all name education and economic opportunity as their highest priorities. On such hot-button topics as capital punishment, gay rights, and abortion, they tend toward moderate and even conventionally liberal stances--and they play such issues down. "It's not about abortion, not about ideological issues," Brown says, echoing state party chairperson Steele's Lincoln Day speech. "It's about the kitchen-table issues."

Brown, a banker and former small-business person, seems most comfortable talking dollars and cents. His long-term strategy, like Santoni's, is based on neighborhood activism--building credibility, name recognition, and a network of loyal supporters. In the Washington Village/Pigtown area, he has been deeply involved in developing disused industrial properties to stimulate job creation.

"That's really the only way" for Republicans to get elected in Baltimore, says Brown, who polled 2,784 votes in 1999 as a candidate in the council's 6th District. (The winning Democrats, all incumbents, got between 6,300 and 7,200 votes.) "We can't be ideologues--as some of us are. . . .

"I'm going to continue the same things I've always done, staying on the grass-roots level. You make sure you stay planted on the ground so people know where to find you."

Though he has found the same political home, John Heath comes from a very different place than Joe Brown. An ordained Baptist minister who pastors at the House of Mercy church on Old York Road, Heath says he was homeless when he moved to Baltimore from Oklahoma 10 years ago. Eventually he found work at People Aiding Travelers and the Homeless (a now-defunct charitable group), became an anti-poverty activist, and got involved in politics. He wound up serving as an aide to a series of Democratic politicians--Mitchell, Cummings, state Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller.

With his Democratic credentials and what he says is a positive relationship with 43rd District's state senator, Joan Carter Conway, Heath asserts that "if I'd waited a while I could have got appointed to a delegate seat." (A district's senator is the prime mover in filling seats that open up between elections.) But he didn't want to wait. "I was going to run as a Democrat," he says. "I was going to run, period."

Heath contends that the district's two African-American incumbents, Democrats Kenneth Montague and Michael Dobson, are vulnerable. Both ran unopposed in 1998, but Heath maintains the district is "wide open." And the 43rd may be even more wide open for someone running under the GOP banner. As Montague himself notes, redistricting could give the GOP a boost in the district. (Under the redistricting plan recently thrown out by the state Court of Appeals, the 43rd would have gained several affluent Baltimore County neighborhoods. While the court is redrawing the election map, the 43rd was not one of the districts that attracted judicial ire and thus is less likely to be changed.)

Perhaps more important, Heath saw an ally at the top of the Republican ticket. He'd met Robert Ehrlich "through mutual friends" while working in Annapolis. Ehrlich was, and is, looking for inroads among black voters; Heath was frustrated by what he considers Democratic inaction on black concerns. "Much has been said about Democrats taking African-Americans for granted and Republicans ignoring them," he says, echoing an opinion frequently voiced in black-conservative circles. "We need representation in both parties." After talking with his wife and praying over the question, Heath says, he decided to run as a Republican.

While he calls himself a "New Jack Republican" and says that he will "aggressively advocate" for African-Americans within the party, Heath is vague about where he stands on standard Republican agenda items. "I think there are some agreements philosophically," he says. "Certainly in terms of education there are things we can discuss . . . lower taxes, things of that nature, welfare reform." He alludes to a conservative "values platform" that includes "hard work and marriage. . . . The absence of those values is what's causing the decay in our communities."

While he acknowledges that "friendship has its privileges," Heath denies that in switching parties he is merely looking for a better set of coattails. "I think Bob Ehrlich is going to be able to come out of that Newt Gingrich shadow and really show us a new Republican," he says of the GOP standard-bearer, who was elected to Congress in 1994 as part of the conservative Gingrich's "Republican Revolution." Ehrlich's team, Heath says, has "been very supportive. . . . I think they see what I bring to the table, and it's been a tremendous working relationship so far." (Ehrlich-campaign officials did not return calls seeking comment for this story.)

If Heath's bid has a model in recent Baltimore history, it would be Tony Campbell's race against Cummings in 1998. Another young Democrat-turned-Republican, Campbell claimed not to have changed his views (generally economically moderate and socially conservative) when he switched parties, but he viewed the GOP as a better vehicle for taking on what he considered an unresponsive incumbent. Campbell, it's worth noting, got clobbered. But state legislative districts are much smaller than congressional districts, and because Heath is thus far unopposed by other Republicans, he has been able to persuade the state GOP to give him some monetary support in advance of the primary. And in terms of promoting his bid, he is thinking big, with fund-raisers planned not only in his district but in Republican strongholds as far away as southern Pennsylvania.

David Tufaro's prescription for a GOP beachhead in Baltimore notwithstanding, black Republicans have yet to make much of an impression on the city's African-American electorate. Nor do they impress Arthur Murphy, who expresses skepticism about Baltimore Republicans in general and black Republicans in particular.

"They're irrelevant, trying to make themselves relevant," Murphy says, "You've got some people who are opportunists who are taking advantage of a vacuum and trying to fill it. . . . It's a small, microscopic group. [Black candidates] are being used by the Republican Party."

And no matter what color the candidate--and no matter how charismatic he or she might be--nothing replaces money in a campaign's arsenal. And that is in short supply for city Republicans. Without "financial angels," pundit Rascovar says, the party will not be able to persuade "high-quality candidates" to take the risk of running. It's telling that one of the strongest city GOP candidates in recent years, Santoni, was his own angel, seeding his 1999 campaign with $15,000 in loans and contributions from himself and his wife. With that head start was able to raise an additional $65,000, including $6,000 from the state GOP.

But such largess from on high is rare. "The state party has to make tactical decisions about where that money is best spent," David Blumberg says.

Lacking deep coffers or many prospects for building them, city Republicans face the daunting task of building support one race--and one ever-less-lopsided loss--at a time. (Barring lightning strikes, that is: The Republican who came closest to winning a city race in recent years was arch-conservative Jim Brewster, who polled 47 percent against then-state Sen. John Pica in the 43rd District in 1990. But Pica was unusually vulnerable, having recently been identified in the media as one of Maryland's laziest legislators, and having survived a bruising Democratic-primary fight with an ambitious newcomer named Martin O'Malley.) The relatively strong support for Santoni and Brown three years ago suggests that the closest thing local Republicans may have to a formula for electoral headway is to field moderate candidates (of any race) who have paid their grass-roots dues and built up credibility with the business community and other regular funders. In short, candidates who don't so much run as Republicans but as civic-minded neighbors who happen to be Republicans.

That nuts-and-bolts approach is filtering down to the party's newest acolytes. John Heath says he intends to promote an African-American agenda within the GOP and says the party needs new ideas if it hopes to stage a comeback in Baltimore City. But he acknowledges that, when it comes to politics, he is no idealist. "The idealists," Heath says, "haven't won yet."

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1950-June 14, 2008

Late Bloomer (2/6/2008)
Don't Look Now, But Maryland's Presidential Primary Might Actually Make a Difference in 2008

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