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Clinton backs cities so Schmoke backs him


When Bill Clinton came to Baltimore in December to meet with Kurt Schmoke, he didn't have an appointment, but he did have a strategy.

Clinton intended to get Schmoke's endorsement for president the old-fashioned way: He intended to buy it.

Not with money. Clinton almost certainly would not offer such a thing and, if he had, Schmoke probably would have called a cop.

Nor did Clinton offer a job. Schmoke does not want to leave electoral politics any time soon. His campaign manager told me this week that Schmoke will definitely run for re-election in 1995 and is still considering statewide office after that.

But Clinton came armed with something far more appealing to the mayor than money or jobs: Clinton offered Kurt Schmoke a chance to shape policy at the presidential level.

Schmoke had told all the Democratic candidates the same thing when they came seeking his support: He would endorse nobody who didn't believe that saving America's cities was of vital importance to the future of the country.

"Not only do you and I agree on that," Clinton reportedly replied, "but you can help write my national policy on it."

And Kurt Schmoke liked the sound of that.

So over the last few months drafts have been flying back and forth between Little Rock and Baltimore. And Saturday, when Clinton unveiled his 10-page urban policy, Schmoke's fingerprints were all over it.

In return, Schmoke has given the Arkansas governor not just an endorsement, but what Schmoke aides call "very active" campaigning: Schmoke has made appearances with Clinton, has done a radio commercial for him and has lent Clinton forces in the state both volunteers and office equipment.

(Unlike other campaigns that rent office equipment at election time, the Schmoke campaign owns its own furniture, telephones, copying equipment, etc., and is able to launch a full-scale campaign on 48 hours' notice. The Schmoke campaign may be the only permanent campaign in the state.)

Clinton and Schmoke share certain similarities of background: Both are Rhodes scholars, both attended Yale, and both escaped the Vietnam draft through student deferments and lottery numbers. (Clinton had lottery number 311 in a year when the draft extended only to number 195, and Schmoke, a few years younger, had lottery number 129 in a year when the draft extended to 125.)

But, as the presidential campaign began, Schmoke felt he had no special ties to any of the candidates.

"By November," Larry Gibson, Schmoke's campaign manager, said, "we knew the mayor would be approached by all the candidates. And we decided that he would ask each candidate one question: 'What are you going to do for the cities?' "

Schmoke did not expect to get much of a reply, however, even though Democrats have traditionally looked to the cities as their base.

"This year the Democratic presidential candidates are going after suburbia," Gibson said. "The code term they use is the 'middle class.' But when they say middle class they really mean suburban. There is a hesitancy to talk about urban. This is what distinguishes Clinton; he has decided to go after the city vote."

What Schmoke sought from the Democratic contenders was no less than a reversal of 11 years of Ronald Reagan/George Bush policy: He wants a return to large-scale federal funding of cities.

But some candidates, including Paul Tsongas, for whom the Maryland primary on Tuesday is considered a must-win, were not about to go along.

"Senator Tsongas was very direct," Gibson said. "He said: 'My campaign is to support business development, and if business benefits then the cities will benefit.' "

Schmoke was not impressed.

"It sounded exactly like Reagan and trickle-down to him," Gibson said.

So Clinton got the endorsement, and now Schmoke gets the risk. If Clinton does poorly here, Schmoke will look weak.

"It is always safest to stand on the sidelines and see what happens," Gibson said, "but that is not what a leader does. A leader leads."

Besides, the Schmoke endorsement is not so risky when you consider Schmoke is responsible only for Baltimore and not the rest of the state.

"And in Baltimore," Gibson said, "I expect Bill Clinton to do well."

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