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Will Schmoke's Election Tactics Make Him a Loser in the Long Run?


Despite his galvanizing Eisenhower smile, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's campaign style and strategy push him toward the other end of the charisma spectrum.

His calculatedly cool approach to elections helped to keep turnout for Thursday's primary election at about 35 percent, down by about a fifth over four years ago.

Mr. Schmoke won comfortably. But a time could come when he will want voters to turn out in great numbers, and he must hope that staying home on election day will not become habitual for his supporters. There are 556,145 Baltimoreans over age 18, according to the recent census; 61,681 voted for Mr. Schmoke -- 11 percent.

A campaign low point may have been achieved when members of the League of Women Voters stayed away from their own mayoral candidates' debate. The estimable League has more than 300 members in the city, but only a handful showed up for an event which has been one of the organization's reasons for being.

Mr. Schmoke, who chose not to go the debate, was blamed. He gave the usual array of tactical reasons for remaining aloof: no need to give a forum to your competitors; no need to act as if there's a real contest, etc. All classical back-room stuff. But the picture of this progressive new mayor as a brake on the democratic process seemed incongruous.

Former Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns dampened interest in the event, too, by threatening to stay away if Mr. Schmoke did. He changed his mind finally.

"I thought I owed it to the people," Mr. Burns said.

Mr. Schmoke and his handlers may say he owes it to himself and to the people to get re-elected as easily as possible. Against a field of venerable has-beens and upstarts, he concluded the best way to proceed was calmly and quietly.

But, even as that strategy succeeded, he may have risked becoming a two-term unknown, a man who has managed to mute his sparkling image and impeccable resume.

His style seems altogether consistent with his personality.

"I'm Kurt Schmoke, not Arsenio Hall," he said on election night.

On the other hand, he has occasionally startled his constituency with the boldness of his ideas and his willingness to express them.

When he was Baltimore state's attorney, he spoke with uncommon candor about aspects of the job which had not gone as well as he had hoped. Politicians usually do not provide road maps for their opponents. Mr. Schmoke took the altogether responsible and altogether uncommon view that the public good is served when public officials discuss policy and performance unfettered by calculations of what is good for them politically.

In the early days of his mayoralty, he called for a national debate on the handling of drug crimes in the United States. As a former prosecutor and sitting mayor, his view that this discussion should include the step of "decriminalization" (not legalization) gave Mr. Schmoke a national forum.

He has been, perhaps, somewhat less bold on the subject since then, though his leadership earned him national honors.

He has worried that the mere fact of his election would create a tide of rising expectations. He was a personable figure with an appealing political vita: city high school football star, Harvard Law grad, Rhodes Scholar, future world beater. He was almost inevitably over-sold: He was mayor of a large American city with intractable problems and no money.

Nevertheless, he promised in his first inauguration speech to make Baltimore "The City That Reads." He was being visionary and modest at the same time. It was sad that such a goal had to be enunciated, but the young mayor tackled it. He was seeking a new identity, and he was putting priorities on people.

He was thereupon blind-sided (to continue the sports analogy) by people and by real world complexities. Instead of being able to focus all of his attention and effort on the goal of literacy, he fell into a long squabble with his new superintendent of schools, who he hired, lost confidence in and then seemed unable to fire.

Though he was given considerable slack because he was new and because he was following the ultimate tough act -- now-Gov. William Donald Schaefer had been among the nation's best mayors for 15 years -- the issue of ineffectiveness arose in the context of education and others.

Mr. Schaefer's decision to keep Mayor Schmoke at arm's length and criticize him occasionally has been another test -- and one he has handled reasonably well.

"He's secure enough in himself that he doesn't get angry with the governor. He senses that, whatever their personal relationship is, Schaefer is taking care of the city financially when it matters -- by taking over the City Jail, for example," said a veteran city political strategist and businessman who worked for Mr. Schaefer and who respects Mr. Schmoke.

The result of the Schmoke style, however, has been to leave voters with a certain lack of resolution, a feeling they should be getting something more from city hall.

"People aren't angry with him. They're just a little disappointed," the businessman said.

Mr. Schmoke told a television reporter he was ducking the

League of Women Voters debate as a matter of strategy. He didn't want to give his opponent the exposure, to suggest that he had any concern about winning the race -- or that any of his pursuers were more than nuisances.

He has been blessed by weak candidates, and, still, his strategy has left him with one victory that was far less convincing than it might have been. He defeated former Mayor Burns in 1987 by only about 5,000 votes.

Political strategy may dictate a dull campaign, but it also sets great store in mandates and convincing margins. Mr. Schmoke cannot live forever as a candidate who wins with questionable margins against under-powered opponents.

Mr. Schmoke's strategy may have squandered useful opportunities for leadership, for saying more clearly where he would like to take the city and how he would take it there. In such an exercise he might have re-invigorated concern for the city and confidence that progress is still possible. As its population falls, Baltimore is losing real voting strength in Annapolis -- perhaps even being supplanted as a political force by the Washington-area where the population has increased.

If he wants a future for himself and for his city, Mr. Schmoke may be called upon to make the city's case. In a time where taxpayer attitudes outside the city are occasionally characterized by "compassion burnout," political leaders such as Kurt L. Schmoke will be asked to find new solutions and new arguments.

In time, he will have to answer the question Mr. Burns put to him this year in television advertisements:

"What was everybody so excited about in the first place?"

Fraser Smith covers Maryland politics for The Sun.

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