Mayor Schmoke shows he's sharp by playing dull


If Kurt Schmoke's re-election campaign seems a little dull to you, that's because it's supposed to be.

This campaign is dull by design.

The Schmoke strategy has been to conduct a low-key campaign emphasizing meetings between Schmoke and the electorate, not a high-profile campaign designed to attract the attention of the news media.

Schmoke can afford commercials, so he doesn't need to be on the nightly news or on the front page. Especially since he knows how most politicians end up on the nightly news or on the front page:

The three things that get you in the news are mistakes, attacks and polls.

So far in this campaign, Kurt Schmoke has made no mistakes, launched no attacks and released no polls.

What he has done instead is fall on the ball.

A former football quarterback (who threw no long, exciting bombs), he knows all about falling on the ball. He has the lead; he is just waiting for the clock to run out.

And you know who cares? Nobody. Nobody real, I mean. The only people who care about whether campaigns are exciting or dull are the media people who cover them. And that's because dull campaigns make their jobs even duller.

A story in Saturday's Sun noted that people are not calling radio call-in shows to talk about the mayoral campaign. This is a clear sign of how successful Schmoke's dull-by-design strategy has been. People call radio shows to talk about everything, even things no ordinary person could possibly care about. But they are not calling about the mayor's race.

Nor is this a sign of general political apathy. People are calling radio shows to talk about congressional redistricting. But Schmoke vs. Burns vs. Swisher? Forget it.

If one job of a campaign is to find a strategy that suits the candidate, a dull campaign suits Kurt Schmoke just fine.

He was exciting once in his mayoral life. He made national and world news by advocating the decriminalization of illicit drugs. He was on the media all over the world. He could have become America's leading spokesman for this cause.

But he did not. He pulled back from promoting it. While he still believes in decriminalization, you don't see or hear him quoted on it anymore. He talks about it only if asked and would much rather talk about issuing new 9mm handguns to the police in Baltimore. (The guns are mentioned in his glossy campaign booklet, drug decriminalization is not.)

His drug stand was exciting, but it was also controversial. What, on the other hand, has dullness gotten him?

According to a poll by the state's Democratic Party, it has gotten him a personal approval rating of 71 percent and a performance rating of 60 percent.

And there are few mayors in America who would not give an arm, a leg or various other body parts for ratings like those.

Will Kurt Schmoke debate his opponents? No, that would serve only to excite. Debates that feature serious discussions of issues are instantly forgotten (can anyone remember the first Bush-Dukakis debate?) but debates that result in devastating and exciting gaffes can help turn elections around (the second Bush-Dukakis debate).

Schmoke is blessed in his dullness strategy by two opponents who excite almost nobody. One gets the feeling that sometimes they fail to excite even themselves. And that they are running not to become may or, but to prove to themselves that they still have a pulse.

Former Mayor Du Burns says he would "tear [Schmoke's] pants off" in a debate this year like he did four years ago. But Burns' memory is playing tricks on him.

Burns did well four years ago by exceeding expectations. In other words, he uttered a number of largely coherent sentences.

This time, Burns would be evaluated by a much tougher standard. And there is every reason to believe he might be on the defensive this time.

He would have to explain, for instance, his incredible statement to Sun reporter Ginger Thompson as to why he helped engineer the defeat of a gay rights bill in 1985.

"Politicians have lives to lead, too, and so we can't go for the minority and against the majority and expect to win re-election," Burns said.

For sheer political cravenness, it would be hard to beat that statement. Maybe Burns could explain his way out of it in a debate, but there will be no debates. There will be no NTC excitement. Kurt Schmoke doesn't want any.

Schmoke is one of those rare politicians who actually prefers government to politics. And government is rarely exciting.

He will take slams for it. He already has. He is sometimes called cold and detached and he is often called dull.

But he is a fan of political biographies and so he knows the truth:

What they call dull in your first term, they call statesmanlike by your third.

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