A phone call after midnight rarely delivers good news. So when the phone rattled loose the sleep and the voice of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake interrupted a nightmare at 2:30 a.m. on August 27, the first thought that came to mind was dirty tricks, or as they used to be called in the age of innocence before Watergate, political pranks.
And among the most creative local pranksters of his political era was the madcap Walter S. Orlinsky, City Council president and before that House of Delegates’ member and among the stalwarts of the old Mount Royal Democratic Club, a duopoly that he shared with his next door neighbor on Bolton St., State Sen. Julian L. Lapides (D). It was through the patronage of the club that Orlinsky got his start in politics as water-boy, nicknamed “Gunga Din,” who filled the glasses of City Council members in the governing body that he would later lead.
But even marriages that are made in heaven often do not survive here on earth. The year was 1968. Cities were in flames. Riots were a form of urban recreation. And it seemed that an entire generation marched on Washington at one time or another to protest the escalating Vietnam War and especially the draft. In March of that year, the entire board of directors of the Mount Royal Democratic Club, led by Orlinsky, resigned over the war and control of the club’s policy bullhorn, the newsletter. It was out of that defection that the rival NDC2 (the old Second District New Democratic Coalition) was born with Orlinsky as its nominal and manic leader. For years, the next door neighbors, Orlinsky and Lapides, never spoke a word between them over the bitter division of the clubs. They eventually, and grudgingly, repaired the relationship.
Then in 1970 Orlinsky and his crew had a novel idea. They would run a full ticket against Lapides and his Mount Royal group of survivors, with J. Joseph Clarke, husband of Council member Mary Pat, running at its head and directly against Lapides for the district’s Senate seat, which represented much of the center city and Roland Park to the north. On primary election night, Orlinsky and his merry band of mischief-makers revved up their phone banks at two a.m. and began dialing the elderly ladies in Roland Park, identifying themselves as volunteers for the campaign of Sen. Lapides and urging them to vote for the popular senator. Orlinsky’s theory was that enough people would be annoyed by the calls so that they would either vote against Lapides or not vote at all. He was wrong. Lapides was reelected easily.
Other Orlinksy handiwork included, of course, the celebrated 275-pound bicentennial cake that was supposed to win Baltimore prominence in the Guinness Book of World Records and instead rotted and molded on a barge at Fells Point; winning unanimous approval of a City Council resolution renaming War Memorial Plaza as Albert Speer Plaza (after Hitler’s architect) as a jesting rebuke to the edifice-prone Mayor William Donald Schaefer; running a one-issue campaign for re-election as City Council president solely on his diet regimen wherein, to the delight of the press and the amusement of the public, he would heave his Fallstaffian girth onto a scale every morning to display his successful weight loss (after the campaign he resumed his voracious eating habits); and circulating fliers throughout East Baltimore’s Polish community urging voters not to “let happen to Orlinski what happened to Helinski,” substituting an “i” for the “y” in his name to simulate a Polish identity resembling that of defeated state’s attorney candidate George Helinski.
Despite her affected charm and other abilities, it is doubtful that Rawlings-Blake could duplicate the hellszapoppin’ antics of Orlinsky even if she were of a bent to engage in such puckish demeanor, which she is assuredly not. So saying, Rawlings-Blake issued profound apologies for the apparent misfire of her automated robocall system which woke up many Baltimoreans in the middle of the night and was attributed to an “equipment malfunction.”
“I am deeply sorry. When I get a call in the middle of the night, it can only mean a tragedy,” Rawlings-Blake was quoted as saying. “It caused a lot of people to lose sleep. It’s the last thing I wanted.” Orlinsky would never apologize. Wally would only chuckle.
With early voting underway as the petty-paced warm-up to the main event on Sept. 13, primary election day, Rawlings-Blake eases comfortably with favorable polls in hand and oodles of money in the bank, toward election on her own. The most recent Baltimore Sun poll, conducted by Opinion Works of Annapolis, gives her an almost unstoppable lead with 50 percent of the vote, more than the other four major candidates combined. Such numbers suggest a low voter turnout because of a lack of interest or serious challenge, somewhere, perhaps, in the neighborhood of 20-25 percent, and even that might be a high projection. All the more favorable for the incumbent with organization, money and media to get out her vote. A high turnout would signify a protest and a serious challenge.
In the final days toward what passes in Baltimore as the definitive election of a mayor, the campaign has degenerated into a nasty competition of bitchiness and pure baloney over how to fix the city’s layers of problems. Despite sharp remarks and vicious attacks, Rawlings-Blake keeps her eyes glued to the prepared script, as is befitting a front-runner with nothing to gain by engaging the competition. And the reportage has included stories about Rawlings-Blake and her husband receiving unintended property tax breaks and, on another day, how the city is trying to recover $26,000 from Otis Rolley’s wife that she collected for compensatory time that she supposedly did not earn while working for City Council President Bernard C. Jack Young. Rolley is running third in the Sun’s poll behind Rawlings-Blake and State Sen. Catherine Pugh.
Rawlings-Blake is seeking election on her own after having succeeded the decapitated Sheila Dixon as mayor in a resume upgrade from City Council president. Rawlings-Blake has been in the mayor’s office little more than 18 months, but has campaigned citywide before as a candidate for City Council president, ironically, on a ticket with Dixon who has now emerged as a nagging critic as well as an adviser to Rawlings-Blake’s challengers. There is speculation that Dixon is preparing an attempt to reclaim the mayoralty in four years. She was prohibited from running this year as part of the court settlement that led to her resignation after a highly publicized trial on a series of charges that included pilfering gift cards that were intended for the poor. But the Sun’s poll suggests that Baltimore voters are unlikely to reelect Dixon even though they applaud her performance as mayor. A rousing 54 percent say no to a return engagement.
Politics is a form-follows-function kind of business. Mayors come and go, but the constants in municipal governance are—pick up trash, plow snow, fill potholes and keep your fingers out of the tambourine. The rest is attitude.