Schmoke's re-election campaign strives for maximum exposure


Kurt Schmoke: The Video has just been released. Kurt Schmoke: The Paperback will hit the streets soon.

But before I preview them for you, I'll give you this advice: Get them while you can. Because they may be the longest look you will get at Kurt Schmoke: The Candidate in this year's mayoral contest.

Yes, Schmoke will plunge deeper into a back-breaking schedule of personal appearances. But most voters don't go to such things.

And yes, he will have TV and radio commercials. But they will be 30 and 60 seconds long.

The one source, however, that many people tune into in order to see the candidates -- televised debates -- will probably not take place this year. And that's because Schmoke says he has no plans to debate his opponents.

He will be appearing in forums, where the candidates speak separately. But those are serious, issue-oriented things that rarely, if ever, are televised.

Debates are what people watch for the same reason they watch the Indy 500: To see who crashes and burns.

In his last race, Schmoke debated incumbent Mayor "Du" Burns. But because expectations were so high for Schmoke and so low for Burns, Burns' entirely adequate performance was a big boost to the Burns' campaign.

This time, Schmoke apparently sees no reason to boost his opponents and no reason to provide free publicity for their underfinanced campaigns. "I don't know whether we're going to be able to debate," Schmoke told me Friday. "I am told there are nine candidates in the race and I am not sure how useful a nine-candidate debate would be. It was not useful to the Democrats [in the 1988 presidential primaries]."

OK, so how about a three-man, Schmoke-Burns-Bill Swisher debate? I asked.

"No," the mayor said. "We're not going to do that. We have no plans to. It is unlikely."

So if you want to see Schmoke on TV at any length longer than a commercial or a nightly news sound-bite, you're going to have to plug him into your VCR yourself.

What can be said about Schmoke's new 11 1/2 -minute videotape? Well, Schmoke may have put it best himself. "I think my tape's better than Du's," he said.

A few weeks ago, a campaign organization friendly to "Du" Burns' mayoral candidacy starting handing out audio tapes spoofing and criticizing Schmoke. In the past, Schmoke would not have commented on such a thing. But that was the last campaign. In the current campaign, Schmoke is breathing fire.

Well, at least he's smoldering a little.

"In the last campaign, I simply deflected any shots taken at me and did not respond," he said. "This time I will respond."

Such as?

"When Swisher [the former state's attorney] talks about me having 14 bodyguards, well, last time I would have ignored it," Schmoke said. "This time, I clarify and I correct and I also remind people that he knows better and he knows what the true facts are and what he is doing reflects that he is trying to mislead people."

OK, enough raw meat for one interview. Now to the video:

There is music, but it is not something you can either dance to or listen to very long without gnashing your teeth. It is upbeat, generic, synthesizer stuff.

The pictures are better. They are of Schmoke meeting and greeting people. Schmoke, no tie, collar unbuttoned, talking over a coffee mug in his kitchen, a bowl of fruit behind him. The city skyline, markets and houses. People at work. Families at play. Kids at school. The mayor's wife (also identified as his "best friend") and the mayor's daughter, though not the mayor's son.

Needless to say, the images are carefully multiracial, multi-ethnic, multi-aged. And there are endorsements. Boy, are there endorsements.

Former Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro III appears (you can almost )) hear the producer screaming: "Get me a popular white politician who's never been indicted!") and says:

"Kurt Schmoke is one of the finest political personalities I've ever met in my life. He's honest, a man of intellect, integrity and industry. I give him very high marks as a person and as mayor."

There are also magazine covers praising Schmoke and Baltimore (which also make up a soon-to-be-released Schmoke campaign ad) including People saying of Schmoke: "Tough and creative, he's in the forefront of a new generation of leaders whose strength is substance, not showmanship."

The narration of the tape is standard and substandard stuff: "A city is more than bricks and mortar." "Kurt Schmoke is dedicated to making Baltimore a wonderful place to live." "He proves his commitment by facing the challenges of the '90s."

But mostly there are facts (Schmoke's opponents would call them claims) about what Schmoke has done for the city.

The tape is at its best when Schmoke is simply sitting behind that coffee and in front of that fruit and talking. "Hopefully," he concludes, "people will be able to say -- and I think they will be able to say -- that indeed the city is better because Kurt Schmoke was mayor."

Schmoke refuses to "act" on the tape, which is smart. He is no actor. An example: He has probably walked out the front door of his house a few thousand times and done it perfectly naturally. But if you want to see how unnatural you can look walking out your own front door when you are trying to look natural, then watch Schmoke try to do it near the end of this video.

Though both Schmoke and Larry Gibson, his campaign manager, see the tape as fact-filled and substantive, what people take away from such videos are feelings and impressions. I watched the tape six or seven times. And these, I think, are the impressions that Schmoke is trying to sell the public:

Kurt Schmoke works well with people of all races. He is quiet and confident. He listens. He seems friendly. People like him. (Tommy D'Alesandro sure does.) He is proud of Baltimore. He has accomplished things. He is a family man. He is respectful of old people. He is concerned about children. He is smart. He cares.

There is also an overall impression that the tape strives to make: He is pretty much like you and me.

This last one is the ultimate goal of all campaigning. Because if on Election Day you can get a voter to enter the booth and, be he young or old, black or white, man or woman, he says of the candidate, "Hey, this guy cares about what I care about," then you have won.

The real trick, however, is not to make an 11 1/2 -minute video, but to get people to watch an 11 1/2 -minute video. After all, we are not talking exactly M. C. Hammer here. Larry Gibson, however, is sure people will not only watch the tape, but also be entertained by it. "We have showed it to groups and I have never seen anybody fidget," he said. "I have never seen anybody leave the room."

One purpose of the videotape is to reach people who don't want to read Schmoke: The Paperback. A 42-page, pocket-size booklet, the galleys of which I was allowed to see, it is called "The Schmoke Progress" (as is the video) with the snappy subtitle: "The Major Accomplishments of Kurt L. Schmoke as Mayor of Baltimore City."

It could, however, be called "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About What Kurt Schmoke Has Done For Baltimore."

It is a blizzard of short paragraphs divided up into 14 topics.

It contains stuff like: "Mayor Schmoke appointed the first Asians to high mayoral posts" and "In 1990 alone, filled 30,000 potholes, a record" and "Raised starting salaries for teachers close to the statewide average" and "Replaced revolvers used by police, giving them powerful 9mm semiautomatic guns."

Gibson would not reveal how many books had been printed, how many tapes had been made, how much they had cost, how they will be distributed, what commercials the campaign will run in the future or what his current polls are showing. (In a weak moment, he did reveal, however, that he thought Schmoke would be re-elected.)

Schmoke said he thought the paperback and the video complemented each other and were necessary because when he goes out onto the streets to campaign, people ask: "What have you done?"

Now, he will be able to whip out his paperback or tie people to chairs and have them watch the videotape.

"Both are designed to let people know what I've done," he said. "In reducing the size of government, we reduced the size of our public relations apparatus and so maybe we didn't put out the information [on what we've done] like the previous administration did. I have done a lot. And now I have to let people know what I've done."

Which is still not enough to get reelected. The nightmare scenario for Schmoke is what happened to some campaigns in 1990, when incumbents outspent their opponents by huge amounts and still lost or barely squeaked by.

"Money is not the big deal of the campaign," Schmoke said. "My days now are divided between time in the office and getting out in the streets, meeting people, putting up the signs, picking up the pace.

"I'm not taking anything for granted. These are volatile times. I going back to the basics of 1982, when nobody expected me to win [as state's attorney]. I've got to campaign like that.

"How will I win? I'm going to out-hustle the other guys."

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