Clarke reviews her agenda, considers pursuing mayor's job


In 1987, soon after Baltimore voters sent Mary Pat Clarke to City Hall as the first female president of the City Council, she sat down and wrote herself a long memo. It was an action agenda for the four years ahead, a term of office she then thought could very well be the only shot she would have at her stated goal of changing the political landscape of Baltimore and grooming the city's future leaders.

Scratched out in longhand over seven pages and made available to only a few close aides, the memo reflected a schoolmarm's penchant for mastering the routine business of the job, a desire to emulate the street presence of former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, a commitment to aggressively deliver constituent services and an unabashed "go for it" attitude toward "busting up the status quo, black and white."

"Because re-election is unlikely, at best, we are free to disregard the consequences of taking strong and controversial stands," Mrs. Clarke wrote in her 1987 memo. "Let's gear up and organize to go for it."

Today, as the 50-year-old former English teacher tromps from political club to community association, from fund-raiser to candidates' forum, many of the goals she set out in that list of imperatives -- headlined with simple resolutions such as "Be a good people person" and "Be a good legislative leader" -- have been realized despite an early hazing that left her politically and emotionally shaken.

And if she once thought that her term would be a one-time strike at the political establishment, Mrs. Clarke is well on her way to re-election to a second term and in a strong position to run for mayor.

Opposition from Mrs. Clarke's longtime nemesis, the old-time whitepolitical clubs, was fleeting. Ten days after State Sen. George W. Della Jr. jumped into the race, he jumped out. And the challenge she feared she would face from the black political establishment never materialized -- although an effort to recruit an opponent was mounted.

The lone black contender is the Rev. Daki Napata, a community activist who helped Mrs. Clarke in her 1987 campaign.

The question is why? Baltimore is a majority black city where the president of the City Council holds the second highest elected office and, by law, fills a vacancy in the mayor's office should the mayor resign, become incapacitated or die.

The answer, say several black political leaders, lies in another question: Why would an established politician want to take the risk?

In assessing Mrs. Clarke's four years in office, "you are led to some very real conclusions that Mary Pat is not a vulnerable incumbent, that in the African-American community she has reasonably good marks, favorable marks," said Delegate Howard R. "Pete" Rawlings of West Baltimore.

The financial resources of the black community, Mr. Rawlings added, are being directed at the race for city comptroller in which two blacks and a white are vying for the city's third-highest political office.

In addition, blacks have to share power, says State Sen. Nathan Irby Jr. of East Baltimore. "I believe the city at this point can't go totally black in the upper administration. You don't want to polarize the city. There's got to be some white representation in the city. You got to have balance."

A key element was Mrs. Clarke's push this spring for a redistricting plan that blacks believe will give them a greater opportunity to win seats in the City Council, Mr. Irby said.

Passage of the redistricting plan -- a controversial document that pitted a black coalition in the council against its more veteran, and exclusive white, members -- capped a series of goals Mrs. Clarke outlined in her 1987 memo. Chief among them was to "promote black leadership, despite seniority mandates, to compensate for underrepresentation and to establish a pool of seasoned candidates for higher office," according to the memo.

L Her critics ascribe another motive to Mrs. Clarke's actions.

"She's not developing leadership. She's developing a group of followers to Mary Pat Clarke," said Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd, who was stripped of his committee chairmanship this spring after the redistricting fight. "She lives to accumulate [power], and when she gets it, she abuses it."

When Mrs. Clarke stated her goals in that 1987 memo, she drafted a map to plot a political and philosophical course. "I wanted to think about a way to measure whether I had accomplished what I set out to do, so I wouldn't just drift," Mrs. Clarke said in a recent interview.

Her first resolution was "Be a good legislative leader." Efforts to "support [the] development and growth of newer, younger members" set the scenes for her most humiliating defeat and, then four years later, her most resounding victory.

Before the council convened for its first official meeting in December 1987, Mrs. Clarke indicated she wanted to give some powerful committee posts to freshman members. The proposal incited a near-rebellion among the more senior members who swiftly secured enough votes to wrest from her the power to make those committee appointments.

Humiliated but not defeated, Mrs. Clarke looked for other ways to cultivate the newer members. She helped them with anti-crime and housing initiatives and made it a point to publicly give credit to those who worked diligently on projects of their own. Meanwhile, Mrs. Clarke sought to pump up the image of the council -- "minimize disruptive influence of senile members" -- and make the public more informed about what the council does.

She increased the size of the council's legislative staff. At the same time, the president's office staff also grew. The city's cable television network began broadcasting the council meetings. Press releases were issued from her office.

Early on, Mrs. Clarke realized the need to "master" her duties as president of the Board of Estimates, the panel of the city's top and elected officials who must approve all city contracts, personnel actions and expenditures. She streamlined the sometimes flabby agenda and succeeded in opening the

board's closed mini-meetings.

But most of her attention was focused outside of City Hall.

"Be the city's best 'street person' via appearances at neighborhood meetings, fires and festivals -- and via regular 'tours' of the city on weekends, a la W. D. Schaefer and his portable memo forms," Mrs. Clarke wrote in her action plan. "Find ways to identify [Mary Pat Clarke] with issues of major importance, i.e. kids, the elderly, a stable tax base and small business support and development."

"What is her appeal?" asks Carl Wilkins, president of the South Baltimore Improvement Association. "Her energy. You're amazed to see where she turns up, what she gets involved in."

But that insatiable need to be everywhere also has caused resentment among some of her council colleagues. "She's like the fourth councilman in everyone's district," said Mr. Cunningham. "I don't think that's the role of the City Council president. That's why you elect three council members. She's all-intrusive."

It's a habit Mrs. Clarke admits is hard to break.

"It was hard for me to adjust to my role as the president of the council and realize the council members of the district want to be the front line of the district," she said. "For the first year I was here we had some difficult times but I learned . . . how to communicate, when to step back and to make sure I'm not stepping on someone's foot."

But, she doesn't apologize.

"Whether you're empowering a small neighborhood or helping emerging young people to take the lead, it's all the same,"

said Mrs. Clarke. "It's widening the scope of participation and leadership."

And, says Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, D-4th, it is paving Mrs. Clarke's way to the mayor's office. "She is starting to develop a base to help her to move on to that seat," said Ms. Dixon. "In the African-American community, people generally love her."

But at the start of Mrs. Clarke's presidency, with the city's first elected black mayor, Kurt L. Schmoke, occupying the City Hall office two floors below her, the mayor's office seemed unattainable.

"Schmoke is six years out from running for either governor or U.S. senator; therefore the next [president of the City Council] will be mayor, and that will not be permitted to be a person like me," Mrs. Clarke wrote in her goal statement.

In the interview, Mrs. Clarke was clearly disconcerted when reminded of that passage, written four years before. When pressed to explain it, she dismissed it as a manifestation of Irish pessimism.

"We don't buy baby clothes until the baby is born," she said. "We really don't. At least my family never did."

In the eyes of many, Mrs. Clarke bought the baby clothes this spring.

The council's African-American Coalition pushed hard for its redistricting plan over the loud and bitter protests of the council's old-guard white members. The blacks found a willing ally in Mrs. Clarke.

"She saw she had 11 [votes needed to pass the plan]," said Art Murphy, president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which backed the redistricting plan. "She went after it as any good politician would. It took a lot of guts for her to do it. She didn't have to do it."

Once that battle was won, Mrs. Clarke seized the opportunity to muscle her way back in control of the committee system, a power she lost in that infamous inaugural meeting in 1987.

Today, Mary Pat Clarke says she's "exactly the same person" who wrote that memo four years ago. She's obviously discarded any notion of being a one-term council president. Whether she's any more likely to ascend to the mayor's office in four years is an open question.

"She intends to be mayor, but she doesn't think black people will elect her," said Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, a close ally.

For her part, Mrs. Clarke suggests her 1987 musings about having no chance of re-election and being blocked from becoming mayor may have been premature.

"If I'm re-elected, I'm going to look at the situation to see if I should be the person who is serving as the mayor," she said. "I'm going to keep my options open."

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