Politics meets potholes Posturing likely as council returns


Although it's not even an election year, politics will be vying for primacy with potholes when the Baltimore City Council returns from its summer recess today.

Council President Mary Pat Clarke's statement last week that she intends to run for mayor in 1995 and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's continued pondering about whether to run for governor next year promise to raise the councilmanic level of political posturing.

"People are positioning themselves to run citywide. You're going to have more people considering themselves to be players or potential candidates," says Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd.

That's not to say that such traditional council tasks as getting trash picked up or alleys repaired will be ignored. Nor is it to say that members will be so busy jockeying for position they won't have time to pass bills.

Indeed, among the items on today's agenda is legislation that would ban almost all liquor advertising on billboards and regulate dirt bikes. Other potential hot-button issues that could be introduced later are payments-in-lieu-of-taxes on nonprofit organizations; domestic partnerships clarifying the rights of gay and lesbian couples; and broad anti-smoking ordinances.

One thing not likely to happen is a reprise of last spring's Battle of the Budget that led to heated rhetoric over property taxes and police protection -- and a special council session. Last week, Mayor Schmoke reiterated his June pledge to seek a cut in the property tax. He also said there might be legislation setting up separate garbage collection fees, but stressed "that's still being worked on."

Whatever the issue, the tenor of the debate is likely to be set more than ever by the political situation.

If Mayor Schmoke decides to run for governor, a decision he could announce this week, most council members expect a relatively smooth session. Mr. Schmoke, the thinking goes, needing a large voter turnout in the city, would woo the council. And Ms. Clarke, for her part, would tone down her criticism of the mayor. A Schmoke gubernatorial victory would put Ms. Clarke in the mayor's office to fill out the remainder of his term and allow her to run as a sitting mayor in 1995.

"We are all very loyal Baltimoreans," Ms. Clarke says of the effect a Schmoke gubernatorial campaign would have on the council. "One of the things we're going to be mindful of is to avoid any embarrassment to the mayor. We'll behave as if company is visiting."

And if Mr. Schmoke decides not to run for governor, a decision that could lead to a possible Schmoke-Clarke mayoral race in 1995?

"If he doesn't run for governor, things will be much more contentious between the two of them," predicts Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III, D-4th.

Budget battle effects

In any confrontation, there are those who believe the mayor's hand will be strengthened because of last year's budget battle. During that fight, the council upheld Mr. Schmoke's veto of a budget pushed through by Ms. Clarke that trimmed a nickel off the property tax rate, then passed a new budget presented by Mr. Schmoke that maintained the current rate.

If Mr. Schmoke runs for governor and wins, and Ms. Clarke becomes mayor to fill the remaining months of his term, that would leave the council presidency vacant. The City Charter provides that a new council president be elected by a 10-vote BTC majority of council members. The new president may, but does not have to be, a member of the council.

The last time the scenario was played out was in 1986. When then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer was elected governor, Council President Clarence "Du" Burns moved up to mayor and Council Vice President Frank Gallagher was unanimously elected by his colleagues to fill the vacancy as council president. "Nobody was really pushy about moving up," recalls Mr. Gallagher, an attorney in private practice. "But we were a different breed of cats. We were more cohesive than they are now, more willing to work together, more willing to work with the administration."

Council Vice President Vera P. Hall says she would be interested becoming council president should a vacancy occur, but says she doesn't know if she would want to run for a four-year term in 1995.

But some council members point out that Ms. Clarke is frequently at odds with Ms. Hall, who is the mayor's floor leader. They speculate that if Ms. Clarke became mayor to fill out Mr. Schmoke's term, she might use her influence to try to get somebody else elected president.

Broadening constituencies

Other speculate that council members will be making more speeches on broader issues in an effort to broaden their constituencies. Crime is likely to be an issue that will be addressed from the council floor, particularly when the council holds a confirmation hearing for a new police commissioner. Commissioner Edward V. Woods is retiring on Nov. 1, and a mayoral committee is searching for a replacement.

And already, some council members are expressing an interest in the city council presidency.

Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, says he's ready to try to get the necessary 10 council votes to succeed Ms. Clarke as council president if she becomes mayor and Mr. Schmoke goes to Annapolis.

Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, says he's also interested in the job. "My name is out there," he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bell isn't discounting his own candidacy. "I think we need to look futuristically, look to people who can appeal citywide. We need people who can relate to young people. . . . I think a lot of people think I'm looking in that direction."

Now that Ms. Clarke has said she will run for mayor in 1995, regardless of what Mr. Schmoke does, others may decide to run for the council presidency. Indeed, asked last week about his reaction to Ms. Clarke's mayoral plans, Mr. Schmoke sounded bemused.

"I do believe that basically what she's done is open the door for some relatively strong candidacies," he said.

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