Beyond the skyscrapers with reflecting windows and graceful outdoor fountains, the soaring glass roof of the new aquarium and the other downtown monuments to the new Baltimore of Time Magazine covers, is an older city of docks, row houses and worn marble stoops.
Here, where Pratt Street crosses railroad tracks and cobblestones at the entrance to Little Italy and, beyond that, the Polish neighborhoods of Canton and Fells Point, the old Baltimore endures. Church pews still fill up on Sundays, life begins and ends in the same row house, and here perhaps more than anywhere in Maryland, traditional organization politics, based on ethnicity, patronage and loyalty, continues to be practiced much as it always has been.
This election year, however, the old political machinery in East Baltimore has run into an enemy it can't control: Statewide redistricting that has created one legislative district out of two, thrusting two potent political groups, and a slew of minor ones, into a struggle for dominance.
The result has been an old-fashioned political war that has erupted in bitter court suits, ethnic rivalries, accusations of political treachery and tales of classic schemes right out of a ward boss's election manual.
"They're returning to the political bosses' textbook this year full scale," said East Baltimore Del. Patrick L. McDonough. "It's like revival of the Roman empire, I see a lot of cigar-chompers." McDonough, a self-styled independent, has been screaming the loudest about foul play: Five minutes before the filing deadline several weeks ago, a Patrick T. McDonough, who had just moved into the district, filed for the seat Del. Patrick L. McDonough now holds.
On one side of this battle is an organization once viewed as the state's strongest political machine, with deep roots in heavily Italian neighborhoods. On the other side is the Dypski clan, a group of brothers and friends that draws strength from the predominantly Polish areas of the district. In between are Irish and German political leaders, and Italians and Poles outside of the main organizations, some of whom have tried unsuccessfully to ally with one group or another.
"It's the war of Italy versus Poland with a lot of little guys in between," said State Del. Gerard Devlin (D-Prince George's). The winners will be decided Sept. 14, when the district's overwhelmingly Democratic voters go to the polls for the party primary.
The incumbent Italian organization is the current incarnation of clubhouse politics begun nearly 50 years ago by the son of an Italian immigrant, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., who went on to become mayor and congressman. The group expanded throughout the district and the city and brought to prominence such notables as Sen. Joseph Staszak, the local ward boss whose fame spread well beyond East Baltimore when he responded to a charge of conflict of interest by saying, "How does this conflict with my interest?"
Today the organization, like many others that sprang up in working class immigrant communities during and after World War II, has shrunk in size and strength as patronage has been eroded, although not completely replaced, by civil service systems, nonpartisan community groups and a mobile population.
Nonetheless, the organization and its all-male 26th Ward United Democratic Club is still a major force. Its cadre of precinct executives still can get out the vote, using a system of walk-around money that, in deference to election law reforms, is now called pre-election day "compensation" for campaign workers. And state and city-wide officials continue to woo the organization's leaders and presidents still visit here.
"It's old political machinery, for the working stiff," said one state Democratic official. "If you went to one of their bull roasts or crab feasts and mentioned the word ideology nobody would even know what you're talking about."
The old D'Alesandro group is now headed by City Councilman Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro, who bristles at the reference to Tammany Hall-style politics, saying: "It's no organization no more. It's a committee of 12 or something. All decent respectable citizens of the state of Maryland and the city of Baltimore and I'm one of 'em." The other leader of the group is State Sen. Joseph S. Bonvegna, one of the main characters in this year's election drama.
A stocky, cigar-smoking state senator with the countenance of a kewpie doll, Bonvegna spent years "working his way up" through the D'Alesandro organization during its years of unquestioned city-wide influence, eventually taking over Staszak's senate seat when the power broker left it and pled guilty to mail fraud and tax evasion. For the last eight years Bonvegna has been a full-time senator in the old 46th district, spending most days "servicing" the people of the district, as he puts it.
Like all state senators, including his main opponent, Sen. Cornell N. Dypski, Bonvegna appoints notaries, doles out student scholarships and selects election day poll workers (about $75 for the day). He helps raise money for needy constituents, organizes a city-wide "I'm an American Day" parade to raise money for charity and obtains jobs, including liquor inspectors and judgeships, for a lucky few. Because he is an astute politician, Bonvegna also carefully maintains relations with the powerful community groups.
All of this has made Bonvegna a well-known man, able to command loyalty in the district. While campaigning, he can recall one person after another for whom he has performed a service. "See there," he says pointing to a home in a meticulously kept section of row houses, "I made her a notary." At another, he comments, "No problem there, I helped 'em with their daughter who has a long-term illness . Helped them raise some money."
One door-to-door visit produced a question from a constituent about Benjamin A. Neil, a young lawyer running for delegate as an independent. The question elicits a discourse, unusual for the taciturn Bonvegna, on how politics is supposed to work: "He's too young yet. Hasn't done his time. Should've played ball with us. I guess he wanted to be his own man. But in this life you have to compromise. If you don't you're dead."
Says Neil of his race against the organization: "I once read "Boss" about Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and I thought to myself, Geez, this is just like home."
The wily Bonvegna does not like to discuss his opponents, except to say, in his clipped elliptical style, that they're not going anywhere. But it is clear to friends that Bonvegna is running a bit scared this time, worried about his lack of strength among Polish voters and a challenge among Italian voters by newcomer Robert N. Santoni Sr., a supermarket magnate.
Bonvegna and his ticket mates have been door-knocking in the new, combined 46th District every weekday evening since June, going back to all the heavily Italian areas that have supported the organization and making regular raids on the Polish areas. In those neighborhoods, Bonvegna emphasizes that Del. American Joe Miedusiewski has jumped from the "other guy"--the Dypski group--to run with Bonvegna instead. He also organized a huge, widely publicized bash for Polish stowaways who arrived in Baltimore this summer--and made sure Dypski was not invited.
Across the district, in the Polish areas, Dypski, who represented the old 47th District, has been waging a more low-key race, concentrating on mass mailings. Like Bonvegna, Dypski has been a member of the state senate since 1975 and has been able to use many of the same senatorial prerogatives to build a loyal following.
Despite the typical political methods, Dypski styles himself a maverick, an outsider fighting the powers-that-be, particularly the public utility companies. He and his brother, Delegate Ray Dypski, have won their elections without organizational backing. "If I was with an organization I'd still be waiting to run for state central committee," Cornell Dypski said. In 1978 the Dypskis defeated a DiPietro-Bonvegna supported ticket.
The city's major politicians do not like Dypski much or consider him loyal--in part because he has bucked the city administration at times, most significantly when he voted against the Baltimore subway.
"The Dypskis are unreasonable," said one of the city pols. "The mayor would come down and say we need this for the city and they would say okay but what are you gonna give me in return. They do this on every bill. Bonvegna will vote for bills that are good for the city and if there's one that'll hurt him he'll say, 'That's gonna hurt me,' and the mayor will say, 'How can I ease the pain.' "
Although he is well-known and liked in the Polish areas and Poles probably have a slight edge in the ethnic breakdown of the new district, some view him as the likely loser in the race. The new senate district carved out this year contains only 35 percent of his old base.
But Dypski and his group, which includes eight Dypski brothers in all, are not to be underestimated, according to Baltimore politicians. "The people they have work like zealots," said Del. Miedusiewski. "They do a 20,000 mailer all by themselves in Cornell's living room with the coffee and the FM radio. They lock themselves in like monks and work like crazy."
While Dypski acknowledges that Bonvegna may be the frontrunner, he is not conceding anything. "I'm not gonna take any area for granted and I'm not gonna give up any area," he says, admitting that in all likelihood the vote on primary day will run along ethnic lines.
In the meantime, the 17 other candidates for the district's legislative seats (one senator and three delegates) continue to slug it out. Postage-stamp size lawns and front windows are loaded with political signs. Neighborhood newspapers are filled with letters and editorials accusing various people of "dirty tricks." And as the summer moves along it has become clear to everyone in East Baltimore that the campaign may be the toughest in years.
"These guys--I'll use a nice word--are practical politicians," said one amused suburban politician, who knows the East Baltimore scene. "It's gonna be block by block, house by house. It's gonna be incredible."