Schmoke's Future (If Any)


The "golden boy" of Baltimore politics may be losing some of his glow.

Kurt Schmoke was assured of re-election as mayor 10 days ago, winning an underwhelming victory over two tired, aging and impoverished has-beens. When all the votes were counted, Mr. Schmoke had been given a mandate for a new four-year term by a mere 11 percent of the city's adult citizens.

Most of the other 89 percent stayed home.

Voter turnout on Sept. 12 was pathetic. It epitomized, sadly, circumstances in Baltimore, a city experiencing what Jimmy Carter would call a "malaise."

People are losing hope. They see an epidemic of drugs and killings that seems to be getting worse, not better. They see political leaders such as Mr. Schmoke and members of the City Council, who are personable and friendly but unable to energize the city against such evils.

They see a governor, whose romance with Baltimore never ended, turn impotent in trying to secure funds to help the city.

And they see members of Congress and a president mouthing the right words, then ignoring the plight of urban cities as though the problems are someone else's worry.

Voters reach the point where they don't feel going to the polls will change anything. That's what happened on Sept. 12.

Still, Mr. Schmoke rejoiced at his 30,000-vote victory. (For the record, there's a general election, but Republican Sam Culotta has a better chance of being hit by a meteor than upsetting Mr. Schmoke.) Mr. Schmoke's campaign manager and guru, Larry Gibson, may call it a victory of epic proportions but he knows better.

Mr. Gibson can rail against this newspaper all he wants but the truth is that his candidate, after four years in office, is losing rather than broadening his support within the business community and within many neighborhoods. Even some long-time supporters are disillusioned.

Against weak and discredited foes, with all the powers of incumbency, Mr. Gibson's candidate got 57.5 percent of the Democratic vote, less than Gov. William Donald Schaefer received in the general election last year statewide. And we know how the governor felt about his 59 percent mandate: he spent months wondering why so many people disliked him.

Fortunately, Mr. Schmoke is far more level-headed. He'll take a win no matter how it is packaged. He faces, though, an unappetizing situation with almost no game plan or vision. He's won the right to run Baltimore for four more years, but he's never told us how he intends to proceed and where he's taking us.

Intrigue within City Hall could turn Byzantine. Council President Mary Pat Clarke badly wants the mayor to run for U.S. Senate in 1994, and win. Then Ms. Clarke would be the city's new mayor, with a leg up on the 1995 election.

But newly elected Comptroller Jacqueline McLean is just as covetous of the mayor's chair and even more aggressive than Ms. Clarke. There could be much jockeying between these two officials as they try to position themselves as Mr. Schmoke's heir-apparent.

It is similar to the City Hall scene in the early 1960s. In 1959, a reformist Democratic ticket ("Three Gs for Good Government") swept three-term Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. from office, installing J. Harold Grady as mayor, Phillip H. Goodman as Council president and R. Walter Graham as comptroller.

Within months, though, the three Gs were at each other's throats. When it became clear Mayor Grady would much prefer a seat on the city's circuit court, the maneuvering really got intense. After Mr. Grady was appointed to the Supreme Bench, Mr. Goodman assumed the office of mayor but the feuding with the comptroller continued.

This split led to a bitter primary in 1963 that left Democrats deeply divided. The ultimate winner: Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, Baltimore's last Republican mayor.

Mr. Schmoke's immediate challenge is keeping the city's budget balanced as the state hacks away at local aid. There won't be raises for city workers. Programs will be cut back. You don't win popularity contests that way, but Mr. Schmoke may not have a choice.

Nor can the business community be counted upon to boost city fortunes. Times are tough for local firms. Besides, many local corporate leaders are fed up with the administration's lack of responsiveness and its lack of forceful leadership.

Don't count on help from the counties, either. County executives and councils are indifferent, at best, to the city's plight. The suburbs' message: keep property taxes down, maintain services and ignore what's happening in the city. There's more than a hint of racism in the counties' reaction, which leaders are doing precious little to change.

Clearly, Mr. Schmoke has a tough job on his hands. He's got to display the same leadership that made him succeed when he quarterbacked those great City College football teams. He's got to hire some stars to run his administration. And he's got to champion regional answers to government's multiple problems, both to cut costs and improve efficiency.

If he succeeds, Mr. Schmoke's political future should be bright. But if he fails to put some zest and vigor into his administration, talk of Schmoke for Senate or Schmoke for Governor may be wishful thinking.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun.

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