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Enthusiasm for Schmoke is the sound of one hand clapping


THE CITY'S political institutions are embracing Mayor Kurt Schmoke's re-election campaign with all of the fervor usually reserved for kissing mothers-in-law.

Editorialists are beating up on Schmoke for his refusal to debate his principal rivals, for his mismanagement of the old City Jail, for his cavalier disregard of contract procedures and for his pusillanimous follow-up on his vow to improve city schools.

What's more, the editorial endorsements have taken an especially slap-happy twist. They've proved that it's possible to boo and cheer at the same time. One dismissed Clarence "Du" Burns as a tired old fire horse and William A. Swisher as an Frank A.DeFilippoinsincere mischief-maker and Johnny-come-lightly. But, having no other choice, it said, Schmoke is our man by default. The editorial had all the warmth of a bill of lading.

At the other end of the pecking order, most of the city's surviving political clubs are taking Schmoke's money and holding their noses. Voters may do the same. If the election boils down to issues of race, performance or both, Schmoke could be a tough sell on election day. Many bosses and bosslets may take Schmoke's money and go south.

On the streets, Schmoke has another kind of problem. His electoral muscle lies in the 4th and 5th districts on the city's west side, which carried him to a narrow victory (4,000 votes) over Burns in 1987. Even in winning in the area, Schmoke still failed to carry the precincts along upper Park Heights Avenue. However, this year there are no contests at the councilmanic level in either district, causing voters to tune out and turn off.

At the same time, however, there are compelling contests in the 1st, 3rd and 6th districts, where white organizations are fighting to preserve squatters' rights on the City Council. And there are contests revolving around race in the 2nd, where the dominant NDC-2 political club has declined to endorse Schmoke. Yuppie intensity over the mayoral election is greatly diminished.

It may be an accident that Burns' campaign headquarters is just across the street from council President Mary Pat Clarke's on Maryland Avenue, but there is quiet connivance between the two campaigns, and it's no secret that many workers in Clarke's campaign are also helping Burns. Clarke would dearly love to see Schmoke lose, for a defeat would be the end of the Schmoke organization at the same time it would firmly establish her as the doyenne of Baltimore politics and almost for certain the city's next mayor.

Schmoke, too, may be a victim of the very redistricting plan he opposed but declined to veto. Because many political careers and organizations are endangered by the new districts, unusual interest in the trenches over councilmanic races is deflecting attention from the mayoral contest.

If, as Tip O'Neil says, all politics are local, then more tribute will be paid to the composition and coloration of the City Council, the trough from which local benefits flow, than to a mayor whose door is often closed to the very people who want to help him.

Voting is an emotional act. Yet voters are finding it tough to get all wet over a mayor who's given them a 5,000-kilowatt smile and a golden resume but little else to command their devotion.

For all there is to like about Schmoke, it's becoming evident that there's an equal measure of displeasure over his performance, not enough to cost him the election perhaps, but enough to give him a reality check when the votes are tallied.

For in the pathology of politics, the accumulation of grievances adds up to a sizable constituency of disenchanted voters even though there's no strong anti-Schmoke sentiment. Parents are upset about schools. The business community is concerned about the direction of the city. Firefighters are angry over the overtime flap. City workers are worried about their jobs. Teachers are always miffed about something. Homeowners are on the march against property taxes. And without more state aid, the city may collapse under the weight of its own financial burden. Add them all up and they could mean trouble.

Schmoke may lose even if he wins. The size of his victory is important not only to Schmoke's future but to the city's. A marginal victory could impede Schmoke's political plans as well as diminish the city's bargaining power in Annapolis.

For in the end, Schmoke's first four years in office are on the line. They are a case study of a public official who's rarely missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes on Maryland politics.

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