Why Schmoke Would Be a Weak Candidate GOVERNOR 1994


Call it Schaefer's Revenge. Or the Curse of the Damned Either way, Kurt Schmoke faces enormous barriers in trying to become governor.

So far, all the trial-balloon news has been positive. On the surface, it seems as though Baltimore's mayor has a big edge. The latest Mason-Dixon poll gives him a big 16-point lead. He'd be the only black candidate and can probably count on winning the overwhelming majority of black votes in the state. In a four- or five-candidate race, that might be enough.

But surface appearances can be deceiving. Below the surface, Mr. Schmoke runs into trouble.

Crafting a campaign could be tricky. How do you position Mr. Schmoke as the golden boy of Maryland politics, with all the right Clinton connections, and yet ignore the dismal job he's done as mayor for nearly two terms? This is Mr. Schmoke's competence problem.

His top priority as mayor -- improving the city's schools -- has flopped. The city housing department is in shambles. Economic development has nearly ground to a halt. His appointments to many top posts have been dreadful. His dealings with the City Council have been woefully weak. Business leaders are discouraged, community leaders distressed. Only in the area of fiscal prudence does he win praise.

Overall, it is a gloomy picture that won't play well statewide.

But that's not the worst of Mr. Schmoke's troubles. He has been cursed by his elected predecessor, William Donald Schaefer.

Even though the two leaders aren't on speaking terms, Mr. Schaefer is Mr. Schmoke's undoing. Public sentiment is so strongly anti-Schaefer that it threatens to do in any Schmoke bid for governor.

I can see the campaign bumper stickers now: "If You Liked Schaefer, You'll Love Schmoke." Electing two Baltimore mayors in succession as governor isn't in the cards. Marylanders are so fed up with Mr. Schaefer (83 percent of those polled by Mason-Dixon think he's doing a fair or poor job) there's no way they'll send another city mayor to Annapolis.

Then there's the animus among suburbanites and rural folks toward the city. Not even liberals in Montgomery County will vote for a Baltimore mayor. The anger toward the city is too intense.

How will Mr. Schmoke explain some of his political positions? Legalization of drugs isn't going to win him any supporters outside the urban areas. Suing the state to force Annapolis to pump hundreds of millions of tax dollars into the city schools is a great position to take as mayor, but for a gubernatorial candidate it's a disaster.

It will be a crowded Democratic field. Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg and Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening have been campaigning for months. Attorney General J. Joseph Curran is using his office to promote himself with increasing frequency. House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell, viewing the fragmentation of the Democratic vote, is mulling over a conservative-rural strategy. And now Mr. Schmoke is looking at jumping into the contest.

Mr. Schmoke clearly will hurt Mr. Glendening's base among blacks in Prince George's. But don't expect P.G.'s large black middle class to fall into lock step behind Mr. Schmoke just because he is black. Mr. Glendening has spent 12 years cementing alliances and friendships in P.G. Many of these constituents won't desert him for a little-known politician from far-away Baltimore.

Similarly, Mr. Schmoke will hurt Mr. Steinberg, who had been counting on gaining the support of most political leaders in the Baltimore area's black communities. But don't expect unanimous Schmoke backing there, either. Old "Du" Burns allies, loyal Schaefer supporters and Mr. Steinberg's longtime Senate pals won't jump on the Schmoke bandwagon.

Mr. Curran, too, will lose votes in black sections of the city to Mr. Schmoke. But the attorney general and Mr. Steinberg will benefit from anti-Schmoke sentiment among the city's fed-up non-black residents. So the Schmoke base of support won't be sa nearly broad as expected.

A crowded race increases the chances of a slugfest. Negative advertising is a distinct possibility. Once the Schmoke record as mayor and record on the issues is broadcast for months on end, the mayor's hopes of winning could evaporate.

Even if Mr. Schmoke overcomes these barriers and wins the Democratic free-for-all, he'd be a wounded duck. His liabilities would be magnified when Republicans and conservative independents get to vote.

The electorate in Maryland has undergone a dramatic shift in the past decade. It is far more conservative and less eager to support tax-and-spend liberals for Maryland's top job. Yet that is exactly what Mr. Schmoke is. Living down that reputation will be difficult.

The shape of Maryland's future politics may have been forecast in last year's presidential primaries: little-known Paul Tsongas thrashed Bill Clinton, though Mr. Clinton had a huge outpouring of support from heavy-hitting Democratic leaders here (including Schmoke).

Mr. Clinton carried Baltimore city and Prince George's, but the populous suburbs went overwhelmingly for the more conservative Mr. Tsongas. This "Tsongas belt," combined with the intense dislike of city political leaders fueled by Governor Schaefer's antics, bodes ill for Mr. Schmoke in any state race.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director for The Sun. His column on Maryland politics appears here each week.

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