Looking Toward the Political Future in Baltimore The City Council Turns Assertive

If Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was to have a nightmare it might g something like this:

Nearing the end of his first term in office, with re-election a virtual foregone conclusion, the normally docile City Council takes on an aggressively assertive role by rejecting a redistricting plan they mayor said would preserve racial harmony and subsituting a plan he says could fan the flames of discord.


Suddenly, his reputation as a racial peacemaker, an image he has assiduously burnished since his days as a student at Yale University, is placed very much in question. Suddenly people in Hamilton and Locust Point and Homeland are besieging City Hall, wondering whether racial tensions will make their beloved city an unlivable hell, whether legitimate black aspirations for political power will harden into a tyranny of the majority.

Such a nightmare scenario in fact is being played out now in Baltimore, the reaction to the redistricting plan that Mayor Schmoke says was sprung on him without warning by Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd only hours before it came up for a preliminary vote March 18.


Mr. Schmoke has said the councilman's sudden unveiling of the plan amounted to a political ambush that did not allow communities ample time to study its implications.

But in acknowledging that he had lost the initiative on such a vital issue to a two-term councilman who has never held a citywide office, the mayor revealed what many observers are saying is a critical flaw in his administrative style.

Observers say the mayor has shown little ability -- or even interest -- in exerting his will in dealings with the city's legislative branch.

"The mayor certainly has not been a driving force in the city

council, and that has invited problems many times," said Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd, who was angry that the mayor's plan was not passed.

Because of this, his critics say, the council was able to seize the initiative in a matter that could affect Baltimore's political landscape for decades to come.

The Stokes redistricting plan, which reached final passage by a 16-to-3 vote March 22 during a bitterly confrontational, racially divisive council session, has created five majority-black districts in Baltimore for the first time in history.

In doing so, the council rejected a status-quo plan submitted by the mayor, which would have meant white majorities in the 1st and 3rd Districts, black majorities in the 2nd, 4th and 5th Districts and a 50-50 district in the 6th.


That such a palace coup could take place with so little resistance under prior administrations is all but unconceivable.

Past mayors, including William Donald Schaefer and Clarence H. "Du" Burns, deployed active, energetic legislative envoys to disseminate their views on pending bills, lobby for support and ferret out opposition.

Joan Bereska for Mr. Schaefer and Harry Loleas for Mayor Burns regularly prowled City Hall's fifth-floor suite of councilmanic offices, counting votes and shepherding reluctant members back into line, often before even the most routine of measures.

Council members say that is in sharp contrast with the habits of Mr. Schmoke's staff, who observers say often don't even bother to return telephone calls from council members seeking direction.

For example, when council members urged the mayor's staff to work with them in verifying the meaning of census data that they were asked to use in analyzing the mayor's plan, the administration responded with a brief from its legal officer, which said the mayor was not obliged to work with the council in interpreting census data.

Supporters of the mayor have said that although his difficulties with the council are troublesome, he is wise to distance himself from what is a mostly powerless branch of government. They say he is should keep his eye on the big picture, rather than allowing himself to get distracted by the rough and tumble of council politics.


"The real issue is can we stay solvent, can we put in a competent educational system and how do we survive past the year 2000," said Daniel Henson III, a businessman who advises the mayor on political matters. "You can't have that if the mayor is always down in the mud over every battle."

Nonetheless, the mayor's protestations over being surprised by the Stokes plan brings with it a certain irony.

Council members who characterize themselves as allies of the mayor say they are constantly being embarrassed by sudden initiatives the mayor has taken without advising them of his plans.

For example, the mayor two years ago proposed a controversial bill that would require most large buildings in Baltimore to be retrofitted with expensive sprinkler systems. While council members were trying to decide whether to support the bill -- which had strong union backing -- or suffer the consequences, the mayor apparently chose to back down, leaving it a virtual orphan. It remains unpassed.

And in November, the mayor suddenly reversed himself on another controversial matter without notifying his council allies, announcing he would back a curb in property taxes.

Lawrence T. Bell, D-4th, and other council members who had readied themselves to stand by the mayor in opposing a tax curb as costing the city needed revenue -- a stand that could be a definite political liability going into an election year -- were left holding the bag.


The mayor might have tried to compensate for his own lack of legislative experience by designating one of the council members as his floor leader.

Mr. Burns, who while a 2nd District councilman served as floor leader for Mr. Schaefer, played a vital role as consensus builder and liaison between the council and the Schaefer administration. Council vice-president Jacqueline McLean, D-2nd, a black businesswoman who represents a district known for coalition politics, has been expressed interest in serving as Mr. Schmoke's floor leader.

So far, however, Mr. Schmoke has avoided designating such a greater-among-equals, saying he prefers to approach different council members for help on different pieces of legislation as the need arises.

Council critics of such an ad hoc arrangement say they can never be sure who among them is truly speaking for the mayor on any given issue. And without the restraint that a forceful mayor could impose, they say, the council is left to assert itself, often with mischievous results.

"Schaefer would call me and say 'John, I need your help,' and then Du Burns would come around and reinforce it," said councilman John A. Schaefer, D-1st, who until recently was chairman of the powerful Budget and Appropriation's committee. The mayor has never picked up the phone and said 'I need this.' He's never been a hands-on mayor when it comes to the council."

So on March 18, a black member of the council, Sheila Dixon, D-4th, was waiving her shoe in the face of her white colleagues. "You've been running things for the last 20 years. Now the shoe is on the other foot. See how you like it," she said.


It remains to be seen whether that dramatic flourish has unraveled any of the fabric of racial harmony the mayor has been trying to weave during his political life in Baltimore.

Nonetheless, it can be argued, as some City Hall observers have argued, that the council insurrection was the product of the mayor's latest abdication of power.

He proposed a redistricting plan that was clearly unpopular among black members of the council and raised doubts over its constitutionality among some white council members. Then he failed to exert the full capacity of his office to defend it.

Council members sympathetic to the mayor's plan, including Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, chairman of the council's Judiciary Committee, complained for weeks that the mayor's office was refusing to cooperate with their efforts to analyze the plan.

And opponents of the mayor's status-quo plan, including Mr. Stokes and Ms. Dixon, were able to spend weeks plotting a more radical alternative without the slightest hint that the mayor might use the power and perquisites of his office to yank them back into line.

"He keeps handing us problems," Council President Mary Pat Clarke said shortly before the decisive vote. "And we keep solving them."


But in abdicating so much authority to the council, the mayor runs the risk of being forced to endure solutions straight out of his worst nightmares.

Like having council members drawing racial lines in the sand and waving shoes at each other.

Martin Evans covers city government for The Sun.