Schmoke builds new life in DC

At 60, and a decade removed from Baltimore City Hall, Kurt L. Schmoke is busy reinventing himself.

The former mayor is piling new projects on top of a full-time job as dean of Howard University Law School and sinking roots in the Annapolis area, his new home.

"As my wife says, I haven't abandoned Baltimore, I've embraced Maryland," Schmoke said, with a rolling laugh, during a recent interview at his campus office.

He's also emerging as something of a power broker in Barack Obama's Washington — though not in the way some might have expected.

When Schmoke casually drops the name "Michelle" in conversation, he's referring to D.C .schools chief Michelle Rhee, not the first lady.

In April, Schmoke enginered a compromise between the District of Columbia school system and its teachers union. The grueling, yearlong deliberations, which sometimes ran until dawn, will likely reshape his own future, Schmoke said, and could advance the cause of school reform around the country.

Under the potentially pathbreaking deal, expected to be ratified this week, the union agreed to give up long-held rights in exchange for higher pay and a performance-based system in which bad teachers could lose their jobs. Private foundations pledged to subsidize teacher pay raises and bonuses, making the arrangement an uncertain model for other cities.

"It's going to take about two years before you can tell whether it has really been successful," he said.

Larry Gibson, an old political adviser and friend, said Schmoke was always "multidimensional. Being an elected official was never the only thing or the only important thing that he was doing." As mayor, he held outside positions, including on the governing board at Yale University, where he had been a football player and student leader.

During his return to Washington, where he previously worked as a Carter White House aide, Schmoke has diversified his personal portfolio beyond urban policy and the law. Current activities touch biotechnology research and overseas social development, the Bernard Madoff scandal and fallout from Wall Street's meltdown.

He recently became chairman of the board of trustees at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which describes itself as the nation's largest private supporter of academic biomedical research. He is also a trustee at another major international foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

At the same time, Schmoke has been gradually cutting ties to his old home town.

As a private attorney, he represented two witnesses in the grand jury investigation of Sheila Dixon, a friend and ally, but he is seldom involved in city politics. On a more personal level, he's not in town on a regular enough basis to patronize the Park Heights Barber Shop any longer.

He and his wife, Patricia, quietly relocated a couple of years ago to bayside property they own outside Annapolis — his mother lives in their old Ashburton house — though his wife has kept her Baltimore ophthalmology office.

"We really are very happy with the balance in our life," he said, and longtime associates agree.

Baltimore lawyer Ron Shapiro, a former mayoral fundraiser and adviser who still sees Schmoke socially, said he is as "satisfied as I have known him to be. He's made a successful transition from the world of Baltimore politics to the world of legal education and troubleshooting in Washington."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who first got to know him at Baltimore City College in the 1960s, said Schmoke looks "10 to 15 years younger than when he went into academia. It's something he loves. He's more suited to that type of role, as opposed to mayor or a cabinet member or a member of the administration."

Schmoke's was a very low-profile presence in Washington until last year, when he agreed to represent a Howard Law alumnus with a unique legal problem: Roland Burris, Class of '63, had been chosen by disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to fill Obama's vacant Senate seat.

Schmoke had met Burris early in his tenure as dean, when the Illinois politician held a fundraiser for the school at his Chicago home. Now, at a key moment in the Obama transition, Democratic leaders — including the president-elect — were condemning the governor's action, and Burris was phoning for advice.

Come to Washington, recommended Schmoke, and ask for your rightful place in the Senate.

Burris took the advice and eventually was seated — but not before Senate officials initially turned him away. He wound up facing news cameras in a nearby park, making a public demand for his job while Schmoke held an umbrella to shield him from a cold January rain.

Not long after that momentary public splash, Schmoke got a call from Lorretta Johnson, a top official of the Baltimore Teachers Union and its national parent in Washington, asking if he'd consider mediating the D.C. schools' long-stalled labor talks.

Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said he wasn't surprised both sides found Schmoke an attractive choice.

"He's quiet," Henderson said. "He speaks with authority. He's mastered the art of listening."

Schmoke credits his success as a catalyst in the negotiations, in part, to 12 years of dealing with public employee unions and education issues as mayor. During that time, in the early '90s, Rhee, now D.C. schools chancellor, taught briefly at Harlem Park Community School in Baltimore, but Schmoke didn't know her.

His initial task in the school deliberations, he said, was "to keep people talking." One unidentified participant told The Washington Post that the even-tempered Schmoke had been "a tough dude" who bluntly brought the parties together.

"The result for me was rewarding," said Schmoke. "I see the importance of mediators more than I saw previously." He said he expects to join a law firm or mediation group and do more such work, public and private, in the future.

One thing he won't be doing, he said, is returning to government.

The early Obama backer is well-connected in Washington, including to top officials in the Democratic administration. But he doesn't pretend to be a White House insider.

In fact, he's yet to see the inside of the Obama White House.

Schmoke said he didn't seek an administration job or expect one. He last spoke to Obama when he visited Howard as a presidential candidate in 2007.

Obama is "looking to a new generation of leaders to move things along, and he's got an interesting mix of the baby boomers, from Hillary [Clinton] and a few like that, and then a younger group," said Schmoke, adding that he remains "a big fan" of the president.

Some of his own issues — such as a major overhaul of U.S. anti-drug policy and normalizing relations with Cuba — aren't top items on Obama's agenda. They're also potentially combustible in a highly polarized environment, as Schmoke learned the hard way advising Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, a college friend.

"I was working closely with Dean early in the [2004] campaign. Then [The Sun] ran an article about my drug policy views, and I didn't hear from the Dean people after that," he said. That "was fine, because I wasn't looking to leave" Howard law school.

Schmoke has let the Obama administration know he'd be available for short-term assignments, such as serving on a commission or a troubleshooting gig, he said. Thus far, nothing's been offered.

Schmoke said he discovered in 2005, after taking "a very hard look" at running for the Senate when Paul S. Sarbanes retired, that he was done with elective politics. Instead, he'd become committed to Howard's law school, where his goals include helping more graduates of the midtier school pass the bar exam on the first try, and raising money for its endowment.

"I really do think that I'm helping to nurture a new generation of leaders," he said. "I try to use my collective experience to do the job, but I don't necessarily talk about it to the students."

Students, in turn, regard him as approachable but also as a historical figure who, incredibly, in their view, never had a website for his campaigns. One aspiring lawyer, in a class Schmoke taught on election law, referred to him as a "mayor in the last century."

Third-year student Aliciamarie Johnson was surprised to learn, after Googling Schmoke's name, that he had helped defuse campus tensions as an undergraduate politician in the spring of 1970.

"What that said to me was that, even back when he was young and my age, he had the ability to have a calming effect and not be irrational, and to maintain his cool and get to the bottom of it and walk away with a substantive victory," she said. "And that's the m.o. of a lawyer, really."

Schmoke speaks admiringly of recent Howard law graduates who've made their way to jobs on the White House staff, where he labored more than 30 years ago after earning a Harvard law degree.

His advice to them: "It's not only 'Work hard,' but it's 'Learn a lot while you're there.' Because you don't know when you're going to get that opportunity again," he said. "It's not necessarily a given that you'll be back."

A Full Plate

Kurt L. Schmoke's current activities (partial list)

Dean, Howard University Law School

Director, Legg Mason Inc.

Director, The McGraw-Hill Companies

Chairman, Board of Trustees, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Trustee, the Carnegie Corporation of New York

Director, Children's Health Forum

Member, Council on Foreign Relations

Advisory board, National African American Drug Policy Coalition

Private legal practice: Independent review of Securities Investor Protection Corporation handling of claims against Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities

Mediation: District of Columbia school system and Washington Teachers' Union

International legal assistance and education: Technological University of Choco, Colombia; Salvador da Bahia, Brazil

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