Grass-roots image veils complex Clarke persona


It's a sunny Saturday morning, and Baltimore City Council President Mary Pat Clarke is on the move. She's changed from low-heeled pumps to tennis shoes and is marching through an alley in Northeast Baltimore, scribbling notes in a steno pad.

She has come to this street-corner meeting of residents of the Coldstream Homestead Montebello Community Association to talk about trash. Accompanied by an aide, a housing inspector and about a dozen residents, she stops behind a rowhouse in the 1700 block of E. 28th St. whose windows are broken and whose small backyard is littered with shards of glass, broken wooden cabinets and a rusted shopping cart.

"It's been this way for two years," one resident says.

"We'll make it a priority," Ms. Clarke announces. "We can get it boarded up. What we need to do is get it sold."

The scene is vintage Mary Pat Clarke, repeated many times in many communities during two terms as a 2nd District council member and, for the past six years, as council president: Ms. Clarke out in the neighborhoods, relating to the people, nipping at the heels of the bureaucracy. "The right of people to have government work for them -- I've always believed in that," Ms. Clarke, 52, says.

But the portrait of Ms. Clarke -- who announced last month that she will run for mayor in 1995 -- that emerges from interviews with friends and foes, city officials and community leaders, is more complex and mercurial than the outgoing, grass-roots image she so often projects.

Often emotional and impetuous, she can alternately exhibit the cheerfulness of a schoolteacher greeting her class or the explosiveness of a drill sergeant putting recruits through their paces.

Supporters praise her for her keen sense of what matters to the public, but critics say that she's a publicity-seeker eager to seize any issue that will gain her favorable attention.

She is viewed by many as highly committed to addressing social problems, but her detractors say that her strong convictions frequently make her shrill and uncompromising.

And she is dogged by rumors that she has a drinking problem -- rumors that she firmly denies.

"I don't," she says flatly. "I'd like them to tell me on which of my days [she has a problem]. I mean, let the work I do speak for me."

Her mayoral ambition has sharpened the debate over Ms. Clarke -- her conduct as council president and her capabilities for higher office.

"She's quick to act -- that's her strength and her weakness," says Councilman Martin O'Malley, D-3rd, reflecting the mixed assessments she so often evokes.

Her boldest stroke may well have been her September statement that she would be a candidate for mayor in 1995 even if Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke ran for re-election. A week later, Mr. Schmoke announced that he would not run for governor next year but would seek a third term as mayor. Though some say Ms. Clarke rashly put herself out on a political limb, others say she managed to make herself look proactive and the mayor reactive.

Ms. Clarke has a ready response to skeptics who believe she may yet change her mind and avoid giving up an all-but-sure bet for a third term as council president for a risky run for mayor. "They're used to indecision. I'm not an indecisive person," she snaps.

In seeking to become the city's first female mayor, Ms. Clarke will have to unseat the city's first elected black mayor. A few years ago, Ms. Clarke said that she would not challenge Mr. Schmoke and doubted that she could be elected Baltimore's mayor because she is white. But now she seems willing to gamble on winning enough votes in the city's black community to unseat Mr. Schmoke.

Mr. Schmoke, for his part, says that a Clarke mayoral bid would "open the door for some relatively strong candidacies" for council president. Recently, council members Vera P. Hall, D-5th, and Carl Stokes, D-2nd, said they plan to run.

With Ms. Clarke's tireless style of door-to-door campaigning, Mr. Schmoke's supporters are not taking her mayoral candidacy lightly.

Relentless campaigning

On a recent Saturday, Ms. Clarke started her day with a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of a gift shop, read a children's book at a library, stopped by a half-dozen community fairs, and attended three meetings of residents. Eating only a handful of popcorn during a nonstop, nine-hour day, she effusively greeted those she knew with hugs, and those she didn't with warm handshakes and smiles.

In neighborhoods across the city, variations on a theme are sounded: Mary Pat got a pothole fixed; Mary Pat got a street sign changed; Mary Pat got equipment for a tot lot. But, mostly, what you hear is that when the council president's office was called with a problem, someone listened; when there was a community meeting, Ms. Clarke or someone from her office was there.

"You can always get hold of them," says Dorothy Dixon, president of the Walbrook Neighborhood Community Council in West Baltimore.

Ms. Clarke makes no apologies for spending her time working on small problems.

"Here's the way I feel: The only way Baltimore City's going to work is if people feel that we can make this work," she says. "If you look out your back door and there's piles of trash sitting there, until you get that trash out of your face, you're not going to be able to think big picture."

Because the council president is elected by a citywide vote, Ms. Clarke receives numerous requests for constituent services -- some from residents who turn to her after dealing unsuccessfully with their district council members and city bureaucrats.

While Ms. Clarke has built a reputation on resolving complaints, her detractors say she merely uses constituent work to bolster her political base and to meddle in affairs that ought to be handled by council members.

Others criticize her for siding with the narrow interests of neighborhood groups.

"She's one of the ultimate populists," says Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd, a frequent Clarke critic. "She puts up a front for the people and takes for granted someone else will do the responsible thing."

City Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, a close associate of Mr. Schmoke's, puts it this way: "She's not interested in results. She's interested in making a stink."

Others say her problems go beyond her political style.

Rumors that Ms. Clarke has an alcohol problem have floated in political circles for years. She attributes the rumors to her political enemies.

"Has anyone suggested yet that I've been in Sheppard Pratt?" Ms. Clarke says in voice tinged with sarcasm.

Then, she says, "I'll tell you what the problem is: I don't think I can [drink]. I mean, if somebody gives me something to drink, I'm not good at that. I really shouldn't at all. Because I'm such a hyper person to begin with, I'm the kind of person that it does not mix. It's not good for me. It's bad for me."

To Ms. Clarke, the insinuation is part of a pattern. "It's always personalized when it's me. It's always going to be a suggestion or an innuendo," she says.

"How can I say this right? I don't fit into an organizational structure that people can relate to in terms of how they control this person. Ergo, it's always something that demonstrates that I'm not really in control. That's the fight I have to fight."

Will and willfulness

It's a fight that the mother of four grown children believes she's been waging since she entered public life as a 2nd District councilwoman in 1975.

Two issues last spring illustrate the mix of will and willfulness that have been a part of Ms. Clarke's approach for nearly two decades.

The first was her opposition to a bill to expand the service area for a regional medical-waste incinerator in Hawkins Point; the second, her push through the council at the last minute of a nickel cut in the property tax rate.

The incinerator bill was strongly supported by area hospitals, but bitterly opposed by environmental groups and neighborhood associations in South Baltimore. When the bill came up for a vote and it was obvious she did not have the votes to defeat it, Ms. Clarke attempted to scuttle the bill by abruptly adjourning the council midway through its agenda. Terming Ms. Clarke's actions "unforgiveable," Ms. Hall, the council's vice president, reconvened the council, and after an hourlong recess the council passed the bill.

The property tax cut resulted in a rare mayoral veto of the budget -- after which several council members abandoned their positions in favor of the cut and voted to uphold the budget.

Admirers argue the incident shows Ms. Clarke's willingness to fight to the limit for a cause she believes in.

"Most politicians try to see how they can maximize their public positions so they never look like they lose," observes Councilman Timothy D. Murphy, D-6th, who also opposed the incinerator. "She's not like that." But even some of her allies say the issue shows her tendency to pick confrontation over conciliation.

Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III, D-4th, says she lost a "lot of political capital" by pushing the issues to such an "extreme," adding, "She chooses too many battles. She needs to choose her battles more carefully."

But Ms. Clarke takes suggestions that she is overly combative as a compliment.

'You don't want me to quit'

"If I'm fighting for something for you, you don't want me to quit and cut my losses. You want me to win," she declares.

One of the most important council battles Ms. Clarke waged was behalf of her pride.

In December 1987, shortly after Ms. Clarke and the other council members were sworn in, she was stripped of her power to appoint committee chairs during a long, agonizing council session.

The revolt was led by a cabal of veteran council members who feared that Ms. Clarke was going to name new members to leadership positions on council committees.

In March 1991, Ms. Clarke regained the powers she lost four years earlier.

The videotape of that council meeting is remarkable. It shows Ms. Clarke, grim-faced, arguing for immediate action, her face contorted with emotion, her voice alternately angry and tearful.

"My family was disgraced in this City Council chambers," Ms. Clarke began. "My mother and father sat right in the second row and watched me beaten on in this chair that I had been given by the people of this city. Now, give it back to me."

Her exhortations worked, as reluctant council members eventually gave her the necessary 13 of 19 votes to suspend the rules and pass the bill immediately over the objections of angry opponents who accused her of abuse of process.

That night she named three of her key supporters in the effort -- Councilmen Bell, Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, and Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd -- to chair top committees.

Ironically, Mr. Ambridge introduced the 1987 legislation to strip Ms. Clarke of her power and the 1991 legislation to give it back to her. At first, Mr. Ambridge's role in the 1987 battle drove a wedge into what had been a close political alliance and personal friendship with Ms. Clarke.

For a "long time" after the 1987 vote, "she wouldn't talk to me. It took a couple of years to establish our relationship," says Mr. Ambridge, who has reassumed his role as one of Ms. Clarke's most faithful supporters.

The daughter of a chemical engineer, Ms. Clarke grew up in Rhode Island, Philadelphia and West Virginia. She came to Baltimore in 1967 with her husband, J. Joseph Clarke, a city native and now a real estate developer. They moved into the rowhouse in Tuscany-Canterbury, just north of the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, where they still live.

Ms. Clarke became interested in politics through her work on school and neighborhood issues. In 1975, she won the endorsement of her political club despite the opposition of its leadership and went on to become the leading vote-getter in her 1975 council race.

In her two council terms, Ms. Clarke earned a reputation for outspokenness. She opposed such big-ticket projects as Harborplace and the subway -- positions that earned her the wariness of business, wariness that to a large degree remains.

Ms. Clarke lost a race for the council presidency in 1983 to Clarence H. "Du" Burns, who had the last-minute backing of Mr. Schaefer. Over the next four years she worked as an administrator with the Francis Scott Key Medical Center and studied English literature in the graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Her political career rebounded in 1987 when she edged out then-Del. Larry Young and then-state Sen. Harry J. McGuirk in a tough, three-way race for the council presidency. She won an easy victory in her re-election campaign two years ago.

The 1987 campaign showed Ms. Clarke's appeal to a wide range of voters.

Seeds of feud with Schmoke

But it also sowed the seeds of her celebrated feud with Mr. Schmoke. Mr. Schmoke, in his first race for mayor, had remained neutral in the contest for council president. Late in the campaign, Ms. Clarke distributed fliers featuring pictures of her and Mr. Schmoke in black precincts where Mr. Schmoke was strongest, which suggested that the mayor preferred her over Mr. Young, who is black.

When an angry Mr. Schmoke called for an explanation, Ms. Clarke replied, "You gotta do what you gotta do," according to accounts of the conversation Mr. Schmoke repeated to several confidants.

Partly because of the incident, Mr. Schmoke never took Ms. Clarke into his confidence after they were elected. The two have been at odds since.

During Ms. Clarke's six-year tenure as council president, the council has passed legislation to cap property tax assessments, create a downtown benefits district and curtail adult entertainment businesses -- and is currently working on bills to ban cigarette and liquor ads on most billboards.

But her most lasting impact may be in what she did within the council chambers, in creating more specialized committees and pushing members to exercise the body's oversight function -- best exemplified by last year's hearings on the surplus in the Police Department budget.

In recent months, she helped derail two proposed but never enacted piggyback tax increases and has been a consistent critic of the Tesseract school privatization project. And last year, citing disarray in the city housing department, she voted against the reappointment of Robert W. Hearn as housing commissioner -- more than a year before Mr. Schmoke removed him.

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