Voters are Becoming Increasingly Irrelevant in Choosing Our Political Leaders. Here's a Look at Baltimore's Ruling Class--and How They Stay in Control
As always, someone's in the driver's seat in Baltimore. The most visible and accountable of those in charge, at least in theory, are elected officials. We, the citizenry, are said to have voted them into office and given them jobs guiding the system from their positions in City Hall and the Statehouse--yet less than a fifth of Baltimore City's adult population votes. Still, it is presumed that we put them into office, and that presumption is spelled out in the first sentence of the Maryland Constitution: "That all Government of right originates from the People." A good number of these leaders--61 incumbents, serving in Annapolis, Washington, and in Baltimore's courts--are coming before us again in this fall's elections, asking us to let them keep their jobs.
The three chief contenders for governor this year are all politicians/educators. The attorney general's race pits a lifelong politician/lawyer against a former county police chief who ran in 1994 for lieutenant governor. For comptroller, a man who is a former governor, Baltimore mayor, and Baltimore City Council member dominates a crowded field. Combined (and not including the former police chief, who has never held elected office), these statewide candidates already have a total of 86 years behind them in elected office. They are professional politicians, leaders of the establishment, members of the political ruling class.
As the summer winds down, these and 169 other candidates--ruling-class members and/or wannabes--are wooing voters in state, city, and district races in Baltimore City, vying to win votes in the September primaries and the November general elections. Those with the best chance of victory--the 61 incumbents, along with other electoral mainstays with histories of winning elective office--are backed by the spine of the political ruling class: cadres of financial contributors and political operatives. These relationships are documented in great detail in transactions recorded in candidates' campaign-fund reports, which are filed publicly with the State Administrative Board of Election Laws (www.elections. state.md.us).
Experienced politicians rely on rainmakers--influential financial contributors such as H&S Bakery owner John Paterakis, longtime Baltimore businessperson and political godfather Willie Adams, and Orioles owner Peter Angelos--whose support brings in more money from their wide circles of corporate colleagues, friends, and relatives. The rainmakers often bet the field to make sure their bases are covered, no matter the outcome at the polls.
Smaller players--individuals and small businesses--place bets too, expecting to make or keep friends in high places who can help push pet projects, causes, or contracts.
Special-interest groups--from industry lobbyists to grass-roots advocates--pump money into campaign committees and make endorsements; a little cash here, a little recognition there. And they hope to yield returns later when lining up floor votes or promoting policy changes and public-spending initiatives.
Candidates' political funds are spent on consultants, paid functionaries, and fund-raisers--all specialists in the art of massaging the electoral process. Campaign money also spreads from candidate to candidate, establishing electoral alliances meant to insure success at the polls and create political coalitions in office. And contributions are made to key nonprofit groups--churches, political clubs, and do-good institutions--to show that the candidates support worthy causes and grass-roots organizing.
Gaetano Mosca's The Ruling Class, a century-old kiss-and-tell tome about the practice of politics, is quoted here liberally because its words resonate with stark relevance to Baltimore politics in the 1990s. While the book--a bedrock in the study of political elites--confirms that the class-conscious take on democracy is consistently valid through history, Mosca was neither an egalitarian nor a champion of underdogs. Rather he sought to stabilize and guard the elites from messy disruptions from below. A member of Italy's political ruling class, Mosca recognized that the stagnation of a closed society of elites threatens its stability with popular unrest.
Baltimore's contemporary ruling class may not face the popular threat of which Mosca warned, but the question of its openness to new blood is worthy of exploration. Baltimore hasn't had a genuine influx of independently elected new leaders for quite some time. The same old crew has been in the driver's seat for years.
When we say that the voters "choose" their representative, we are using a language that is very inexact. The truth is that the representative has himself elected by the voters, and, if that phrase should seem too inflexible and too harsh to fit some cases, we might qualify it by saying that his friends have him elected. . . . If his vote is to have any efficacy at all, each voter is forced to limit his choice to a very narrow field, in other words to a choice among the two or three persons who have some chance of succeeding; and the only ones who have any chance of succeeding are those whose candidacies are championed by groups, by committees, by organized minorities. . . . How do these organized minorities form about individual candidates or groups of candidates? As a rule they are based on considerations of property and taxation, on common material interests, on ties of family, class, religion, sect, or political party.
In Baltimore City politicians vie for the favor of a small fraction--less than a fifth of voting-age residents during the last gubernatorial primary--who cast votes in elections. The other 80 percent of the city's adults, the monolithic apolitical class, either are barred by law from participating or just aren't interested. The voting class is shrinking even faster than the city's population; while Baltimore has lost about 15 percent of its residents since 1984, the number of registered voters has declined by a third. There are far fewer people today in Baltimore than in 1984, and even fewer of those who remain register to vote. Fewer still, about 100,000, bother to go to the polls.
Many nonvoters, who are poorly educated and struggling with difficult day-to-day realities, are too caught up with their private lives to participate in elections. After all, this is a city where, according to the latest U.S. census figures (1990), the per-capita income is $11,994, 40 percent of homeowners and renters pay at least a quarter of their income for housing, 22 percent of residents and 32 percent of children live in poverty, 40 percent of residents aren't high school graduates, and 85 percent haven't finished college. Nonvoters might blame elected officials for failing to make things better, but they don't try to do anything about it at the polls. Many--even well-educated folks with decent incomes--believe voting is a meaningless exercise.
Thus the political ruling class in Baltimore is left to work the system as it sees fit, with little accountability to city residents. Electoral competition has become an insider game to decide which part of the establishment's constellation of power will shine in the next term of office. Genuine new blood--truly grass-roots candidates who usurp electoral power without the existing establishment's help or blessing--rarely enters Baltimore's political gene pool. The last such case was that of Kweisi Mfume, a radio-station program director in the 1970s who squeaked into the City Council and proceeded to roar into the U.S. Capitol. A generation has passed since then. (A much less powerful but more recent example is John Cain [D-First District], the populist City Council member from Baltimore's southeast waterfront who took his seat in 1991 and hasn't run for higher office.) The timeworn gulf separating this city's apolitical majority and its political ruling class grows ever wider.
When the American revolutionaries flipped the bird at King George III in 1776, spouting high-sounding rhetoric about individual freedom, equality, and government of, for, and by the people, they must not have foreseen today's elitist electoral process. What they failed to note is a self-evident fact: Whether a British monarchy or a representative democracy, governments are always controlled by an elite class, an organized minority.
Universal suffrage in Baltimore merely gives the hoi polloi a long shot at throwing some of the bums out from time to time as influential cabals amass forces to make sure they're in on the power shift. The hope is that these occasional spasms of electoral backlash introduce genuinely new blood to the establishment and keep it from stagnating into a supracultural clique of vain political inbreeds, an aristocracy out of touch with the masses. If that hope fails, officeholders' legal claim to governance continues, but without a real popular mandate--or at least without popular accountability. This casts on the electorate a pall of apathy, disillusionment, and disinterest in political life; if the situation gets bad enough, it can lead to outright revolt followed by political realignment, as in the '60s in Baltimore and throughout the country.
Exaggeration of the aristocratic spirit, moreover brings people to avoid contacts with the lower strata of society. They are at no pains to make any close study of them, and are left in complete ignorance of real psychological conditions in the lower classes . . . depriving the ruling classes of any influence whatever on mental and sentimental developments in the masses, and so of unfitting the ruling classes for managing them.
In 1992, before voters ushered him out of the White House, George Bush went through a checkout line at a store and expressed rapt wonderment at the bar-code scanner. Though Bush's campaign claimed the president was awestruck over a feature of the high-tech scanner, rather than the concept itself, the moment was seized upon as a prime example of career politicians being out of touch with the masses. More recent local examples include Mayor Kurt Schmoke's eyeopening crime tour of West Baltimore earlier this year, when he described Baltimore's class chasm by invoking Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, with its best-of-times/worst-of- times dichotomy. Schmoke seemingly admits that his kind doesn't really understand the streets of Baltimore.
The elements of the political ruling class that have been caught in corruption--the Jackie McLeans, the Wally Orlinskys, the Larry Youngs, the Mitchell brothers--had all reached lofty enough positions in power to be exposed to underhanded opportunities that are constantly present among the aristocracy. Regular folks just don't get the chance to receive payoffs for steering public contracts, or some other form of public skullduggery.
Observers might notice other, more mundane examples of class separation from elected officials: politicians flaunting the prestige of their offices, traveling through the city amid well-clad entourages, being chauffeured around in fancy sedans, hopping from one big-ticket fund-raiser at a millionaire's home to another, sitting in the best seats at cultural events, parking wherever they want. Sure, the more humble and earnest of them appear at our community meetings and occasionally hoof it through our neighborhoods, knocking on doors to ask for votes, but, all things considered, the trappings and arrogance of an aristocracy are clearly present in our political ruling class.
In a capitalist democracy such as ours, the organized minority that pulls the strings of politics exerts itself using the power of the marketplace: money and the influence money brings to bear. It ain't pretty, it's elitist and exclusive, but it's constitutionally protected freedom of expression, as much a right as voting. So what kind of a ruling class does freedom of expression buy in Baltimore in the 1990s? Let's try a rough topology:
The State Executives: Statewide incumbents are usually well-established as unchallenged leaders of Baltimore City's ruling class, but that hasn't always been the case with the Democratic governor from Prince George's County, Parris Glendening. Until she dropped out of the race Aug. 10, Glendening was challenged by Eileen Rehrmann, the Harford County executive who had won over the city's pro-gambling crowd--led by Mayor Schmoke, rainmaker Paterakis, and political puppet master Larry Gibson--who were mad at the guv for, they charged, not keeping his word about allowing slots at the racetracks. Yet Glendening is firmly placed in the city's power structure; most every other city politician--34 of the 39 members of the General Assembly who represent parts of Baltimore, 17 of 19 City Council members, and the political cadres they each represent--is unified behind him.
Unlike Glendening, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., a former lieutenant governor from Baltimore's old school, Northeast Baltimore's Democratic power elite, has no mutiny to bother him. He's a pillar of the state Democratic Party and always a favorite in Baltimore, where he got his start in electoral politics in a successful 1958 bid for a House of Delegates seat. Curran heads a dynastic political clan that currently includes his brother, City Council member Robert Curran (D-Third District).
Joseph's other brother, Martin "Mike" Curran, held a Third District council seat from the 1970s until the mid '90s, when Robert became his successor. Joseph's cousin, Gerald Curran, recently retired from the House of Delegates (43rd District) under a dark cloud of ethics allegations. Joseph's son, J. Joseph III, is running this fall for the House of Delegates in the Eighth District. And Joseph's son-in-law, Martin O'Malley of the City Council (D-Third District), married into the clan during his unsuccessful state-senate bid in 1990. Descending from Celtic royalty, the Curran name is a steadfast winner of elections in Baltimore.
The recently deceased Democratic state comptroller, Louis Goldstein, hailed from Calvert County, but the Baltimore establishment welcomed him with open arms. A leading candidate to replace him, former Democratic governor William Donald Schaefer, is an old Baltimore b'hoy with scads of hometown money and influence behind him.
Joan Pratt, Democratic city comptroller and a relative newcomer to elected office, is one of many taking on Schaefer in the primary. She won her first-ever outing for city comptroller in 1995 with the energetic support of a large and influential church, Bethel A.M.E., the pastor of which is Schmoke's brother-in-law and a politician in his own right, failed congressional candidate Frank Reid. While Pratt depends on ruling-class support to float her boat in political waters, she is the closest thing to new blood this city has. Her campaign manager Julius Henson, a former political candidate (he lost his bid for clerk of the circuit court in 1974), ushered her and U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Seventh District) into high office, and has subsequently developed significant muscle as a brash political force in the city's elite class.
The Federal Lawmakers: At the top of the heap here, running statewide for reelection, is U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who was a political newcomer when she first gained office as a City Council member in 1971. She has since become a political institution and has spawned new generations of political leaders, including former aides state Sen. Perry Sfikas (D-46th District) and state Delegate Maggie McIntosh (D-42nd District).
The First Congressional District seat is held by Wayne Gilchrest, whose city territory includes only a small piece at the extreme southern tip of Baltimore. As a Republican who, in his second outing for Congress, unseated Eastern Shore Democratic mainstay Roy Dyson in 1990, Gilchrest introduced radically new genes to the political pool. Since then he has consolidated his base of power, been re-elected three times, and is now trying for his fourth term.
Benjamin Cardin of the Third District--roughly the northern and eastern part of the city, and spanning into surrounding counties--is running for his seventh term as a member of the U.S. Congress. This current run in federal office was preceded by 20 years in the state House of Delegates, seven of them as speaker--the top dog in the state's lower house. His uncle, a product of the Irv Kovens political machine, and his father also served in the state legislature, meaning Rep. Cardin is part of a dynasty of state pols.
Running for his second term as a congressmember for the Seventh District, which goes from South Baltimore, through West Baltimore, and into western Baltimore County, is Elijah Cummings, former state delegate for West Baltimore's 44th District from 1982--96. A criminal-defense attorney for 19 years before entering Congress, Cummings has a firm hand in West Baltimore politics.
The State Lawmakers: Among the 38 part-time legislators currently representing Baltimore City's 10 electoral districts, 28 either list no other occupation in their official biographies (14) or describe themselves as attorneys (six) or educators (eight). The rest busy themselves with an assortment of middle-class vocations--insurance, social work, health care, public administration, tax and financial services, shipping, and union organizing--when not working the annual 90-day legislative session or otherwise tending to their public duties. Nearly half of them (18) first entered the legislature more than 10 years ago.
Eighth District:The city's extreme northeast corner is represented by a delegation that includes two Republicans elected in 1990, Al Redmer and James Ports. They make up the only GOP presence in elected office in Baltimore City. Katherine Klausmeier, who was active in the Parent-Teacher Association and toyed around the edges of politics until plunging in with both feet in 1994, when she gained a House of Delegates seat, is the sole remaining Democrat among the Eighth District delegates. Sen. Thomas Bromwell is a political institution in Annapolis; a prosperous tavern owner, he first became a delegate in 1978, then moved on to the Senate in 1982 where he's been ever since. He has chaired the high chamber's finance committee since 1995.
10th District:Another county-based district, the 10th includes a northwestern strip of the city and is represented by state legislators who all first entered office during the last four years (one was appointed to fill a vacancy last fall). The senator, Delores Kelley, has been involved in Democratic politics for years, having been secretary of the state party in the late 1980s, when she also sat on the national party's platform committee. (As City Council member Helen Holton's aunt, Kelley is also the head of an emergent political dynasty.) Emmett Burns, a socially conservative Baptist minister from Mississippi, and Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, a nurse born in the West Indies, were both elected in 1994, while Adrienne Jones, a Baltimore County public administrator, is a newcomer appointee with a history of involvement in local politics.
40th District:One of the heaviest hitters in state politics, Howard "Pete" Rawlings, House Appropriations Committee chairperson, has represented the 40th since first winning office in 1978. Rawlings, the father of City Council member Stephanie Rawlings, also has been seated on the board of the University of Maryland Medical System since 1984. Tony Fulton, a former Annapolis lobbyist and a delegate since winning a seat in the 1986 elections, and Salima Siler Marriott, a social worker turned university professor, have long been part of the politics of this west-central city district, the senator of which, Ralph Hughes, is a 15-year veteran of the state legislature.
41st District:The Baltimore City delegation's most senior member, the 41st's Sen. Clarence Blount, has been in the legislature's upper chamber since 1971 and its majority leader since 1983. As chairperson of the Senate's Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, he has a controlling hand in the process of passing laws with high-dollar impacts. Frank Boston, a city public-school teacher and union leader, was first elected to office in 1982, as a member of the State Democratic Central Committee, and first won a delegates' seat in the 1986 elections. Delegate Nathaniel Oaks' history in politics goes back to his days as a senator-appointed liquor commissioner in the 1970s and early 1980s; his first stint as a delegate in the '80s ended abruptly with a conviction for stealing his own campaign funds, but he regained office in the 1994 elections nonetheless. Clay Opara, the fourth-highest vote-getter in the 1994 race, filled a vacancy in 1996 and is the newest delegate in this west-side district.
42nd District: This northern city delegation is headed by Barbara Hoffman, Senate Budget and Taxation Committee chairperson, who's been a member of the Senate since winning in the 1982 elections. Each of the district's delegates has deep political roots. James Campbell, a House of Delegates member since the 1978 elections, and Samuel Rosenberg, a 15-year incumbent, are mainstays in city politics. The newest member, Maggie McIntosh, gained office in 1992; but McIntosh, as former state director of U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski's office and a player in local Democratic politics since the 1970s, is no newcomer to the establishment.
43rd District: Appointed to the Senate in 1997, former City Council member Joan Carter Conway is new to Annapolis but not to politics. Her husband Vernon Conway, now acting chief of city liquor inspections and formerly an administrator for the now-defunct city Urban Services Agency, is closely involved in her political career, which started with her 1995 election to the City Council. Michael Dobson, the son of a prominent Baptist minister in Baltimore, entered the legislature during midterm earlier this year, but had tried to gain office since making an unsuccessful run against former U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume in 1992. Ann Marie Doory and Ken Montague each have 11 legislative sessions in Annapolis under their belts.
44th District: This district, which includes parts of the Inner Harbor and downtown and reaches deeply into West Baltimore, has long been the territory of the Mitchell political dynasty. John Jeffries, a 10-year veteran delegate, was appointed to fill the Senate seat left vacant by former Sen. Larry Young earlier this year. Delegate Ruth Kirk has held her seat for 15 years, while Carmena Watson, a 1996 appointee, is the district's newest face. Clarence Mitchell IV joined the 44th delegation in 1995.
45th District: Hattie Harrison, a mainstay of the Eastside Democratic Organization (EDO) political club, has kept her seat in each electoral outing since first becoming a delegate for this East Baltimore district in 1973. Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, a former City Council member, is also a product of EDO and has been on the board of its associated nonprofit organization, the East Baltimore Community Corp., since 1971. Delegate Talmadge Branch, who assumed office in 1995, was groomed politically by former U.S. Rep. Parren Mitchell, for whom Branch was special assistant in the mid-1980s. Clarence "Tiger" Davis gained his delegate seat in the 1983 elections, and has been a member of the House Ways and Means Committee ever since.
46th District: With a former City Council member and staffer for U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski as senator, and three delegates from old-school Southeast Baltimore political lines, the 46th's leadership has a strong political-ruling-class flavor. Sen. Perry Sfikas, a fast-ascending player of the political game, is a well-educated full-time politician. Delegate Cornell Dypski was a state senator in the 1970s and early '80s, and returned to Annapolis in 1987 to serve in the House, where he's settled in for a long haul. Carolyn Krysiak, an administrator for the city's finance department, is the wife of Charles Krysiak, former delegate and current Workers' Compensation Commission chairperson. Pete Hammen, a 32-year-old delegate, is a former staffer for U.S. Rep. Benjamin Cardin and the son of a former City Council member.
47th District: Sen. George Della, a City Council member in the 1970s and early '80s, has been a member of the upper chamber in Annapolis since 1983. He holds a seat once occupied by his father, and one which leaders of the Stonewall Democratic Club have traditionally held for generations. The city's two delegates in southern Baltimore's 47th District, Brian McHale and Tim Murphy (also Stonewall members), preceded their current positions with other political offices--McHale as Della's appointee to the city liquor board and Murphy as a City Council member.
Today talk of reforming how our political elite is regulated constantly hovers over the political debate, particularly at the federal and state levels. In promoting a bill currently before Congress that would ban political expression via "soft money" (i.e., unregulated contributions to national and state political parties), Steve Grossman, Democratic National Committee chairperson, recently called the legislation an "important step in giving the American political process back to its owners," while Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the bill would "reform a campaign-finance system that a clear majority of Americans believe is corrupt."
Kathleen Skullney, executive director of the public-ethics watchdog group Common Cause-Maryland, recently had these words of warning to the disorganized majority in Maryland: Without public participation in the ethics reform currently being proposed in Annapolis (Campaign Beat,7/29), "things will continue as they are--a closed society of power, money, and influence, and if you are not in it, you are out of it. We, the public, are out of it."
How to open up the "closed society of power" is a puzzle for those in Baltimore City who aren't in it--that is, the super-majority apolitical class and that portion of the voting class that isn't already part of the elite. But even elitist critics of American democracy, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, believe we can find solutions. "To evils which are common to all democratic nations," de Tocqueville wrote, Americans "have applied remedies which none but themselves had ever thought of; and, although they were the first to make the experiment, they have succeeded in it."
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