Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke told nearly 2,000 members of his political base yesterday exactly what they didn't want to hear: He said it was beyond his power to raise wages in the Inner Harbor area.
The BUILD organization had heard much the same from Mr. Schmoke in an open forum more than five months ago, but its leaders did not press the grim-faced mayor, who has enjoyed the group's support in the past.
It was only after Mr. Schmoke and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who also spoke briefly to the group at the Hyatt Regency, made quick exits yesterday that the Rev. Douglas I. Miles, a BUILD leader, unleashed an attack on the politicians.
"When we ask that they stand with us -- with the poor -- they hide behind legal language and technicalities," Mr. Miles said to enthusiastic applause.
Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, a church-based social action group, has campaigned since April for a "social compact" that would tie public spending downtown to better wages, training and career opportunities for workers, especially blacks.
The mayor has expressed support for the broad goals of the "social compact," but has been reluctant to hold up any public spending, as BUILD has demanded.
In June, the mayor said noticeable change would occur in four months in the way business is done downtown. BUILD leaders didn't ask him to defend that pledge yesterday.
Mr. Schmoke said that he doesn't have authority to raise wages, even in city contracts with private employers. But he said he would use the city's "purchasing and investment power to achieve goals of economic justice."
As the mayor spoke, several BUILD members shouted for him to answer the group's questions directly, but leaders quieted the hecklers.
"It was a joke to me," said James Dawson, 32, who is unemployed. "He didn't stick to the issues. He talked about everything except what we were asking him."
Mr. Schmoke "did not address our major concern, and that's a living wage for downtown workers," Mr. Miles said in an $l interview. "People were angry with the mayor for not being responsive."
BUILD members fanned out after yesterday's session in small groups to walk through several downtown hotels, which they contend are prime beneficiaries of public subsidies.
"What did the mayor say today?" BUILD organizer Howard Jackson asked a group of about 50 members in the lobby of the Lord Baltimore Hotel.
"Nothing," they responded in chorus.
BUILD has focused part of its "social compact" campaign on nine downtown hotels that profit most visibly from convention and tourism business.
But talks with hoteliers stalled in August when the hotels refused to give BUILD specific salary and race data that they considered proprietary.
The hotels, which account for about 3,000 jobs downtown and a $43 million annual payroll, helped set up a hospitality industry magnet program at Southwestern High School and plan a training course at Baltimore City Community College.
While applauding the programs, BUILD says the hotels have failed to address the central issue -- low wages that can leave even a working person below the poverty line.
Edward Sommerfeldt, a BUILD member, said he spent the day yesterday speaking to several housekeepers at the Lord Baltimore, none of whom earned more than $5.50 an hour.
The hotels say they pay what the market for workers dictates. To do otherwise, they contend, would price them out of the convention market.
BUILD leaders have said that any jobs created downtown with the help of public spending should pay a "living wage" on which a worker can support a family -- defined as at least $16,000 a year plus fringe benefits.
That works out to at least $7.70 an hour for a full-time employee.