City Council: Looking Out for No. 1


Because they have to seek re-election so often, politicians by definition are people looking out for No. 1 -- themselves. This may not be such a bad thing, if they are otherwise guided by a sense of mission and duty. But if political juggling becomes all-consuming, the result too often is blinding opportunism that may serve the incumbent's self-interest but usually does little to advance the concerns of the constituency.

The City Council's performance since last fall is a case in point.

The start of the autumn session was impressive. The council enacted a law that banned aggressive panhandling, followed by a landmark bill that made Baltimore the first city in the U.S. to ban liquor billboards concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods. In taking these actions to improve the quality of life, the council had the courage to go against the wishes of usually powerful lobbies.

That vigor fizzled after Christmas. A convergence of circumstances sent many members into an early scramble to position themselves for a city primary election still more than a year away.

The ostensible reason for that mad scramble was a realization that City Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean, accused of wrongdoing in office, would not be seeking re-election; the No. 3 position in the city government would be vacant. With City Council President Mary Pat Clarke pledging to challenge Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the No. 2 position also would be up for grabs. This led to political angling, posturing and constantly shifting alliances. One councilman called the result a "premature factionalization of the council."

This polarization has led to a situation in which the council tends to view issues strictly in terms of the Clarke-Schmoke rivalry and how those with unfulfilled ambitions can best benefit from it. This is regrettable and will not augur well for all the council work that still needs to be done before next year's elections.

Changes are certain in the council even before then. Councilmen Perry Sfikas and Carl Stokes are running for the state Senate, and Councilman Timothy Murphy is seeking a delegate's seat. Councilwoman Iris Reeves says she will retire.

Nothing is certain in politics. This was shown by a name's-the-same candidate filing against Mr. Stokes, who now will have an uphill race against ex-Councilman Nathaniel McFadden. Perhaps this was the kind of cold shower necessary to remind the rest of the council that excessive, premature preoccupation with future elections is quite foolish. Better concentrate on matters at hand.

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