Burns blows horn to set loud tone in comeback race


He has spent the last three years in political exile, sitting by the radio in his East Baltimore home and listening to the talk shows, reading the newspapers and clipping out stories that made him wince, and talking with people who said they wanted him back in City Hall.

Now, Clarence "Du" Burns, 71 years old, says he has begun his comeback -- in earnest, and in semicontrolled anger.

He's begun raising money and putting together an organization.

Also, he's begun taking shots at the man who defeated him three years ago, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

"He hasn't got the temperament to be mayor," Burns said the other day, firing off his first campaign broadside. "My God, all the things we did the last 10 or 15 years, they're getting kicked out the window today."

Thus we begin to draw lines in the political sands of the city where Burns, the most visible link to the legendary years of William Donald Schaefer, seeks to send packing the man who inherited the job but sometimes seems to keep it to himself.

Schaefer and Burns practiced a kind of politics-by-trumpet. The filling of a pothole became cause for a City Hall press release.

The Schmoke administration has been different. Good news, bad news, it's all the same: The mayor keeps his head down and burrows ahead, studying his books and talking to his advisers and doing the stuff that always worked in school. He's every mother's dream son. He's quiet, diligent and hard-working. But sometimes you want to shake him and say, "Have a little fun, mayor! Do something to liven up the party, because a lot of people seem to be packing up and going away."

And now here was Du Burns, a few days after announcing his re-election bid, and his eyes were flashing as he talked of battles lost and battles to come.

"The mayor's a very intelligent young man," he said, "but he has no street sense. See, there's two kinds of politics: of the brain, and practicality. The practical is the toughest, because you can't please everybody. But a good mayor makes an attempt to appease everybody.

"He came in and acted like everything was broke and he had to fix it. I told him, you're gonna have a hard time if you do that. Even I would have a tough time. There's a strong foundation in this city, built over the last 20 years. Hold on to that. You don't have to start all over again, like we did 20 years ago.

"It went in one ear and out the other. If something had Schaefer or Burns' name on it, it had to go. Good people went without getting a shot. And these are people who knew what running a city was all about."

The words contain a thread of irony. In the last campaign, the two men offered dramatic contrasts: Schmoke, the man of letters, seemed certain to attract a circle of excellence to City Hall, the best and the brightest of Baltimore.

Burns, on the other hand, suffered desertions immediately after Schaefer went to Annapolis. Even as he geared up to campaign, he seemed a man alone, and unlikely to attract first-rate people.

Instead, it's Schmoke whose top appointments have had mixed results -- the school system, his centerpiece, is just one example -- and no one has yet been knocked over by the general excellence of his appointments.

If Burns seems to be taking shots early in the game, there's a reason. Trailing heavily in the polls throughout the long campaign 3 1/2 years ago, he began making up huge chunks of ground when he started attacking vigorously and Schmoke failed to respond.

It was too little too late. Funds dried up when big-money people saw the early polls, and without money, Burns couldn't get TV and radio time. But, despite huge gaps in money and news media exposure, he lost by mere percentage points. And some still say he'd have won if he'd gotten aggressive earlier.

This time around, he's hoping to raise at least $300,000. There's a fund-raiser scheduled for March 26 at Martin's West, where Burns says he's hoping to raise about $150,000.

"Look," he says, "anybody would have a hard time being mayor today. You don't have the federal money like there used to be, and the money that is coming in is going to the state. And this means you have to be on good terms with the governor."

He leaves the words hanging in the air for a moment. This mayor and this governor do not get along. It's the most widely reported unlove affair in history. But Burns' own relation with William Donald Schaefer is a tricky one.

"Schaefer and I talk," says Burns, "but we keep a distance, also. He doesn't want to be found guilty of putting me in the race. And the truth is, he's not. I imagine he'd rather I didn't run."

In fact, the uneasiness is two-way. Schaefer, uncertain Burns can raise enough money for a legitimate race, doesn't want to see his old friend hurt again. And Burns, while still loyal to his old boss, also knows Schaefer's popularity isn't what it once was.

So it's his own race to win or lose. And, for openers, he thinks the best way to campaign is by talking pretty tough.

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