Where have all of Baltimore's colorful figures gone?

Baltimore used to be a town of colorful public characters.

One of them, my father, passed away 40 years ago today. Sam Shapiro was often described as a "perennial" candidate — for mayor in 1967 and 1971 and House of Representatives in 1968 and 1970 — and a political gadfly. His attention-getting campaign schemes included handing out bagged live goldfish tagged with "I'm Fishing For Your Vote" in 1967, holding a 50-cent-a-plate testimonial dinner at Polock Johnny's on The Block in 1971 — advertising it on a sign affixed to City Hall — and other inter-election capers and hijinks. They guaranteed an audience for his not-so-crazy ideas, some leading to lawsuits, that benefited the citizens of the city of Baltimore (one of those suits delayed the sale of Friendship Airport, owned by Baltimore City, to the state of Maryland, resulting in a startlingly higher payday for the city). It was a simpler time.

In 1991, when I ran a much more serious race for City Council, I elected anyhow to give out goldfish with the same tag, as a homage to my dad. (Though I was careful to use goldfish sold as food for bigger fish, PETA nonetheless pronounced me an animal abuser.)

That same year saw the defeat of Baltimore City Councilman Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro, master of the malapropism, after 25 years in office. He was a true Baltimore character, popular and devoted to constituent services, and many attribute the end of his political career to (along with redistricting) his everyday utterances — once seen as merely colorful, increasingly regarded as politically incorrect.

1991 also saw the retirement of Hyman Pressman after 28 years' service as Baltimore City's comptroller. Lauded for guardianship of the community kitty, he made fierce fiscal watchdogging look like fun with his perpetual poem-writing and parade-prancing. But upon his death in 1994, former mayor Tommy D'Alesandro III, with whom "Rhymin' Hyman" had served, noted that his antics were of a different time and place.

William Donald Schaefer's swim in the seal pool of the behind-schedule National Aquarium may forever set the standard for mayoral mirth-making, and his Pink Positive Day remains a primer on how to prop up a community's flagging spirit. But even the master couldn't always control reaction to his revelry after his arrival in Annapolis, and in the end he was ousted as comptroller after one too many intemperate remarks.

It's impossible to imagine our current crop of leaders expressing themselves with as much abandon and joy as in the simpler, less self-conscious, pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-cable, pre-24/7 news cycle era. Indications are that there's a correlation between greater levels of plugged-in-ness and lower levels of voter participation; is what we're seeing online just too much information?

Today I'm thinking about my daddy and others of his ilk who knew how to have fun and how to corral others into having fun watching them have fun — perhaps resulting in greater participation in the political process. We sure could use more of that levity today.

Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, a lifelong Baltimore City resident, blogs at http://www.nestingbaltimore.blogspot.com/. Her email is nestingbaltimore@gmail.com.

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