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Playing the numbers game


THE PRIZE in the eyes of Kurt Schmoke and Mary Pat Clarke is the size of the vote. The contest between the two rivals for power is the best in the city even though they're not running against each other.

Schmoke, of course, is running for re-election as mayor. But he's also staking a territorial claim on a statewide office in 1994.

And it's also true that Clarke is running for City Council president. But she's flouncing for mayor as well.

The size of the vote in the September primary is critical to each for short-range advantage as well as long-range planning.

For Schmoke, the calendar offers a spot on a statewide ticket, either governor or lieutenant governor, or a chance to succeed Sen. Paul Sarbanes in the U.S. Senate if he decides to chuck it after 24 years of commuting to Capitol Hill.

For Clarke, a demonstration of her vote-pulling power means the logical next step up to the mayor's office if Schmoke abandons it in 1994 and a sure grip on it in 1995, perhaps halting the planned escalator ride for State's Attorney Stuart Simms up to City Hall as Schmoke's successor.

But beyond the human motivation of personal triumph and political positioning, there's a more compelling medley of reasons why bigger is better when the vote's counted.

For one thing, Schmoke and his political sidekicks are furious with Clarke. She's subverted his administration on any number of occasions -- redistricting, the budget and the bottle tax repeal bill are three recent examples -- and a spectacular display at the polls would show just who's got the support of the people and the hammer on Holliday Street.

Also on the chopping block is the matter of who will control a working coalition of 10 council votes and, in effect, the municipal agenda. Clarke kicked Schmoke in the shins by rejecting his redistricting plan in favor of one prepared by black council members that supposedly realigns the city's political clubhouses their favor.

However, what Clarke really did was to grab control of the council's majority coalition and ensure that most members will support her in the election. The seven blacks as well as the old-line whites on the east side of town were left virtually untouched by the squiggles on the new map.

And now Clarke, with the help of a large City Hall staff that has little to do but meddle in the politics of the city's six districts, is hell-bent on extending her grip over the next council by helping to elect loyalists across the city.

As a counterweight, though, Schmoke has accumulated the public support of all but a couple members of Baltimore's delegation to the General Assembly. In doing so, Schmoke hopes to enlarge his own vote as well as boost the overall turnout on election day.

At a time when the city is losing population as well as representation, and low voter turnouts are undermining Baltimore's bargaining power among the ministers of influence in Annapolis, the reasoning is that a sizable display of voter enthusiasm would be a signpost to any candidates with illusions of statewide office.

Schmoke must also deal with the vote-draining presence of Clarence "Du" Burns, his predecessor at City Hall and the sentimental favorite of the elderly and a few of the remaining clubhouses in the primeval outposts of East Baltimore.

The folks around Clarke have a different case of the heebie-jeebies. In politics, as in sports, you play up to the opposition. The withdrawal of Sen. George Della leaves her with only one opponent, that free-lance mischief-maker, Daki Napata, black minister from South Baltimore. Her political operatives worry that without serious competition, Clarke will ease up and her supporters will slow down because she's a sure winner with nothing to lose.

Schmoke and Clarke are the ebony and ivory of Baltimore politics, a contrast in campaign styles as well as governance. Clarke's a pedal-to-the-metal campaigner who's enormously popular, especially among black women. Schmoke is probably tired of seeing himself characterized as a laid-back technocrat with a 5,000-kilowatt smile and little substance.

Both Schmoke and Clarke realize that all politics are local. This year's municipal election is strictly a numbers game, and who wins control of City Hall depends on which organization does it best.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes every other week on Maryland politics.

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