In the front of the old, paneled cellar was Dominic Mimi DiPietro, the city councilman and ward boss, giving out the orders. In the audience, were 40 or so loyal Democratic Party workers -- "precinct executives," as DiPietro likes to call them -- getting the word on how to "deliver" the district come primary day this Tuesday.
It was a familiar scene in the world of Maryland's old clubhouse politics. Except for one thing. The words "Walkaround money" -- the traditional term for the cash doled out to workers for election day politicking -- were never uttered. Instead, the sums passed out one night this week were called "public relations" payments and came in the pristine form of checks.
"I don't wanna be called on no carpet for no election," DiPietro told his lieutenants as they handed out the checks to the precinct leaders. "We gotta do things right."
And so it was that state Sen. Joe Bonvegna, a fat stogie stuffed in his month, rasped out the names of party loyalists and made sure that each signed his name to this little receipt: "Received from the First District Democratic Team the sum of $30, for distribution of campaign literature and public relations."
Much to DiPietro's dismay, the Maryland General Assembly outlawed last year the use of "walkaround money" -- for decades the lifeblood of election day campaigning in the old line precincts of Baltimore.
"If I were down in Annapolis, this never woulda happened," the 75-year-old DiPietro boasted this week.
The legislation made it illegal for candidates and political organizations to dole out cash to hired hands for working the street corners and polling places on just one day -- election day. But many of the legislators with the same sympathies as DePietro believed the bill would not put an end to the way they did business, and they voted for it anyway.As Sen. Harry J. McGuirk, the silver-haired chieftan of south Baltimore, remarked at the time, "This bill has so many loopholes, you could drive a Mack truck through it."
DiPietro and his troops were perhaps the first to drive on through.
"We figured we'd stay the hell out of trouble, and make everybody sign [the receipt,"] said DiPietro.
"We gotta do it right. We're not gonna go to jail for nobody."
Indeed, Bonvegna reminded the "precinct executives" before they even got their checks that the money was for use "before election day. On election day, you gotta get volunteers."
The worry over how the money would be used was exlipsed only by concern that there was so little money to hand out at all.
"We've got $30 a precinct," Bonvegna told his little audience. "It's not much. I'm even ashamed to tell you about it."
The $2,350 handed out that night will pay for the distribution this weekend of campaign literature in DiPietro's east Baltimore council district.
The money was supplied by a candidate for city judge and state Sen. Edward T. Conroy, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.
The image-conscious Conroy was so concerned about the payment that his committee's check included the phrase: "For campaign expense authorized by the Federal Election Campaign Act." Conroy also sought a special opinion from the Federal Election Commission, which ruled this week that compensation for workers for legitimate campaign activity was legal, but that federal law did not preempt the state statute.