Schmoke watchers wonder what drug initiative means to his political future

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke charged his drug-reform panel with finding ways to ease the city's drug problems while sparking a national debate on reform. What's not so clear is what he might be hoping the group will do for Kurt L. Schmoke.

Yesterday, the task force he named last spring proposed broad changes in Baltimore's efforts to curb its drug problems -- including an emphasis on drug treatment instead of jail.


As Mr. Schmoke considers a run for governor, some political observers give him credit for taking on a tough issue, one sure to provoke controversy among citizens sick of addicts and crime.

However, for most analysts, the mayor's dogged commitment in drug reform is a puzzle.


"If you're a politician with a finger in the wind, this one's a loser," said Herbert C. Smith, professor of political science at Western Maryland College. "I wouldn't like to have that close association with that issue going into a hotly contested gubernatorial race," Mr. Smith said. "It's a very, very difficult sell."

Political columnist Frank A. DeFilippo calls Mr. Schmoke's interest in drug reform "part of the baggage he's got to schlep."

"Most people want to see drug dealers and drug users locked up and out of the way. It's not something I would carry on about if I were running for governor," Mr. DeFilippo says.

Blair Lee IV, a Montgomery County political columnist, sees Mr. Schmoke's talk of drug reform as a simple effort to distance himself from his discussion of "decriminalization" five years ago, when he first joined the debate.

"He's trying to recast his position," Mr. Lee says. "The way to recast your position is basically to talk it to death, meet it head on. He's trying to talk it to death."

But, while some are confounded, others see Mr. Schmoke's stand as a political plus.

"This is a remarkable picture of a candidate standing up for what he thinks is right," says 3rd District Baltimore City Councilman Wilbur E. Cunningham.

"It's a really tough issue. It's the kind of thing that's misunderstood, conveniently misunderstood, and will be used against him in conservative areas. But it's something that's got to be done. This is a killer issue for the city."


Mr. Schmoke says it's far too late for him to try to disavow any controversy.

"The issue is so important that I can't run away from it. And I will continue to try to explain the position and let people know I'm against drugs. I just think we need a new strategy. And while I agree there's a need to wage war, the war needs some new generals and a new strategy to win."

Mr. Schmoke, who is sometimes mentioned as a candidate for national office, is talking about strategies beyond Baltimore.

In May, when Mr. Schmoke welcomed panel members to a meeting in the World Trade Center, he said he wanted to find practical ways to deal with the city's problems. But he also talked about making the nation's drug policies saner, healthier, more rational.

A politician sometimes criticized as too cautious and noncommittal, Mr. Schmoke will not let go of the drug issue. He gives speeches. He writes articles. He appears on national television programs.

"He wants to shape public policy," Mr. DeFilippo says.


"He's a true believer. He's firmly convinced that he can nudge Clinton far enough to get drugs out of the criminal activity jurisdiction and into the public health area," he adds.

"I think he's already influencing public strategy on this issue," says Baltimore Del. Howard P. Rawlings. "When I see him on Nightline or other television shows, he's always very persuasive on the issue."

Mr. Schmoke indeed has urged the Clinton administration to appoint a commission on the drug crisis. And aides have said he sees the report of his drug-reform panel as a starting point for a national reform of urban drug policies.

In their deliberations, panel members spoke often about Washington -- about how they believe that the Clinton administration agrees that, after the failed Republican war on drugs, the nation needs a new approach to the problem. The time is right, they believe, to push for reform. They discussed the views of Attorney General Janet Reno, who believes in sending nonviolent drug offenders to supervised treatment programs rather than to jail and wants to review mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. They mentioned sending their report, focused on drugs as a public health problem, to Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders.

"I have already laid out the case for changing national policy," Mr. Schmoke said after he was briefed on the report yesterday. "I guess what I'm trying to do ultimately in this report is change national policy city by city -- and provide a road map for other cities to be able to change locally."