Just the name "Con Can" must pain Acting Maryland Gov. Blair Lee III.
It was Gov. Marvin Mandel's decision to convert Baltimore's old Continental Can building into a prison, despite strong neighborhood opposition.
In fact, his refusal to back a legislative move to reverse the prison plans has already impeded his campaign in some quarters to garner black support for next year's gubernatorial election.
"I wouldn't want him to head my ticket," said Baltimore Councilman Clarence (Du) Burns, a powerful black leader whose district includes the "Con Can" structure. "He'll have a tough time on the eastside (where the prison site is)."
The black vote is a fast-moving target in Maryland. Few candidates can depend on black support without making peace with numerous political bosses, each with different patronage needs and ideas of how a campaign should be run.
For the politically ambitious, the game is well worth the candle. The black community is so well organized in parts of Baltimore and Prince George's County that commitments from the right leaders can assure candidates of a good showing at the polls.
So it is with enthusiasm that Lee and his Democratic primary opponents court the black political establishment, speaking at black colleges, attending fund-raisers for black politicians, meeting with the legislature's Black Caucus and showing up for the NAACP's Unity Ball.
The acting governor has missed few opportunities to overcome his "Con Can" woes. At recent press conferences, he has stressed the need of bringing blacks into high government positions and onto educational boards.
The word leaked out last week that Lee is considering a cabinet post for Henry G. Parks, Jr., the highly respected black businessman. Parks is politically inseparable from the man who comes closest to running a citywide black machine in Baltimore, William L. (Little Willie) Adams.
Adams for years has been part of the well-oiled citywide network of political bosses associated with premier political fundraiser Irvin Kovens and Mandel, who have guaranteed healthy election day turnouts in exchange for generous doles of campaign "walk-around" money.
"If you go with Willie, the rest is gravy," said one of Lee's strategists. "With Willie, the votes are solid."
Another popular black figure, Baltimore Supreme Bench Judge Joseph C. Howard, has received lavish praise from Lee recently. After Howard failed to make a judicial nominating panel's list for a vacancy on Maryland's Court of Appeals, Lee said he was greatly disappointed because he was "leaning" in favor of appointing Howard as the first black on the state's highest court.
Lee's platform as acting governor and the spot-light of weekly press conferences gives him the edge in the race for black support. But he is not alone in its pursuit.
Senate President Steny H. Hoyer, whose own Prince George's County has a sizable black population, has formed friendships with several black colleagues by supporting some of their issues and appointing them to important Senate committees.
For one of Hoyer's black allies, Sen. Tommie Broadwater, Jr. (D-Prince George's County), the patrician Lee lacks the style and "orientation" to capture much of the black vote.
"Blair Lee doesn't have the feel of poor people of the black people," said Broadwater. "He doesn't know what it is to owe money for clothes or have to pay a house note. He's not able to communicate with people who are not as high as he is."
The politician who gets the highest marks for communicating with blacks is Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who is considering a race for the Statehouse. No one in the campaign can duplicate his voting strength in black sections of Baltimore or his firm alliances with nearly all the black political warlords in the city.
Next to Schaefer, Baltimore County Executive Ted Venetoulis, the youthful, charismatic candidate who plans to run a "reform" platform has the most natural appeal to black audiences.
"Venetoulis seems to get the kind of vibes nobody else gets," said Councilman Burns. "When he talked before my club, he said if he was governor, he wouldn't stand for Continental Can. That's what people want to hear."
Baltimore City Council President Walter Orlinsky is well connected in his city's black enclaves by dint of his years in office and his emergence from a liberal white political club that has allied in the past with black organizations.
Two veteran statewide office holders - Attorney General Francis B. Burch and Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein - have established beachheads in black organizations during their many years in office. But neither candidate is expected to be the first choice of black leaders in their race for the governor's office.