For those who delight in political theater, this is the perfect season to venture to the ornate, vaulted chamber that's center stage for the Baltimore City Council.
An intense, potentially divisive competition for the city's three highest positions is under way, infusing the usual posturing with broader significance. As the 19-member council returns tonight from summer recess, its legislative agenda is likely to be overshadowed by political interests.
Most of the all-Democratic group already has taken sides as the feuding between Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Council President Mary Pat Clarke continues to flare up. Just last week, Mrs. Clarke called for Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III to step aside in the wake of a sharply critical federal audit, while the mayor stood firmly behind him.
Mrs. Clarke's plans to challenge the mayor's bid for a third term next year have, in turn, led a half-dozen of her colleagues to examine their options for higher office.
Council members and political analysts expect rivalry and attempts at one-upmanship on controversial issues -- from proposed raises for elected officials to construction magnate Willard Hackerman's plans for replacing his Pulaski Highway incinerator.
"It's going to be the most political year that the council has ever faced," predicted Herb Smith, a professor of political science at Western Maryland College. "Should we have major expectations achievement? No.
"The lines are clearly drawn. It will be tough to reach a majority, much less a consensus. Uncertainty often produces political paralysis."
As a notable example of stale mate, he cited the council's failure to name a successor to former comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean in July.
Three times, the council attempted to agree on a candidate to finish the term of McLean, who retired and has since pleaded guilty to stealing more than $25,000 while in office. But the council adjourned in deadlock after a tense contest between 5th District Councilwoman Iris G. Reeves, backed by Mr. Schmoke, and 4th District Councilman Lawrence A. Bell, who had the support of Mrs. Clarke.
Some see the potential for a replay when the council must come up with a similar 10-vote majority to fill vacancies in the 1st and 6th Districts at the start of the 1995 General Assembly. First District Councilman Perry Sfikas won the state Senate seat in the 46th District, while 6th District Councilman Timothy D. Murphy won a House of Delegates seat in South Baltimore's 47A.
The council districts on the south and east side are seen as important to Mr. Schmoke, who generally has fared poorly among white voters there in Democratic primaries.
"If I were the mayor, I would care about those seats," said 3rd District Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham."
However, Mr. Schmoke insisted that he plans to take a low-key approach. "I'm not going to spend a lot of time on that question. Those who fill the positions will have to spend a great deal of time campaigning," he said, while acknowledging an interest in increasing the council's African-American representation.
Some council members fear the feud between the mayor and council president will dominate the session. Others cite the ambitions of Council Vice President Vera P. Hall, who just resigned as chairman of the state Democratic Party, and 2nd District Councilman Carl Stokes, who lost a state Senate race, to replace Mrs. Clarke.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bell and 6th District Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi want to run for comptroller.
There's more room for maneuvering in 1995 than in many years because of the highly unusual circumstances, including the indictment of the former comptroller and Mrs. Clarke's early announcement of her plans to challenge Mr. Schmoke.
In what could signify the impact of election-year politics, the Schmoke administration has backed off proposals to lift a moratorium on incinerator construction.
Mr. Schmoke is instead supporting a resolution, expected to be introduced by Mr. Cunningham tonight, to study the future of incinerators as part of a 10-year solid-waste plan. The mayor said his desire to slow the process was prompted by Baltimore County's plans to ship its trash out-of-state, a move that would undercut the need for a regional incinerator.
Other issues before the council include: the mayor's plans to streamline sanitation enforcement, new methods to deal with evicted tenants' belongings, and aggressive panhandling.
For her part, Mrs. Clarke says that she plans to act no differently this year. "I've always spoken up about issues in the city and introduced legislation, and I'll continue to do so."
But Mr. Cunningham was not so sure. "If the mayor says something is green, she will say it's purple.
"Frankly, I'm very concerned about it. It may be good in that we're going to have to discuss some issues, but we also may have government grinding to a slow halt."