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Schmoke just doesn't get it


LET'S GET it over with right up front. Mayor Kurt Schmoke's a decent guy. Inept, occasionally, but nonetheless decent.

His latest fling at public relations is a case in point. He's attempting to defend the indefensible. And in doing so, Mr. Schmoke's merely compounding his problem in a nasty election year when he doubtless was hoping that everything would be okey-dokey.

Mr. Schmoke's big brag was that he has a friend in the White House and a friend in the State House. With what's happening in Washington and Annapolis -- and right here in Baltimore, for that matter -- those high-profile sidekicks might not be enough to keep him afloat. Mr. Schmoke has some very visible grief of his own -- $25 million worth.

But $25 million here, and $25 million there, and pretty soon we're talking serious money.

Mary Pat Clarke, City Council president and Mr. Schmoke's challenger for mayor, may have been high and wide of the mark when she characterized Mr. Schmoke as corrupt.

But there are different forms of corruption, not all necessarily involving white envelopes and sticky fingers in the collection plate.

The poet Dante has a passage in the "Divine Comedy" in which sinners are buried head-first in mud for failing to take a position at a time of moral crisis.

And that's exactly what Mr. Schmoke has done. He's turned his back on a sorry mess of a housing authority. Instead of rooting out the incompetence and outright corruption and favoritism, he spent $12,000 in taxpayers' money on advertising in a clumsy attempt to defend the housing authority's misdirected spending. Much of the money found its way to friends and relatives of his and the authority's director, Daniel P. Henson III, and one of its commissioners, Larry Jennings Jr. Mr. Schmoke got some bad advice.

Oh, sure, the mayor insists, a thousand or so houses were repaired to one degree or another. But that's Mr. Schmoke's blind spot. The feds have already convicted 10 people of greasing palms in exchange for housing authority contracts and they're still counting.

But it was really his phrase-making, by his own admission, that got Mr. Schmoke into trouble.

Mr. Schmoke, in a signed ad defending the no-bid housing repair program, stated that "Only federal funds, not local tax dollars, were used for this program." After a day of outrage by federal officials, Mr. Schmoke backed off -- well, sort of -- by saying the statement was "in-artfully drafted."

And there he was, the very same day, testifying to a committee of the General Assembly, that people are fleeing the city because of high automobile insurance rates. Wanna laugh, wanna cry, this is the spot to do it.

To be sure, high insurance rates may be a small part of Baltimore's population decline. But call it a hunch, and only a hunch, that people are fleeing because the sucking sound they hear is the city going down the tubes.

Put it bluntly. People see no hope or future for what H. L. Mencken described as "the ruins of a once great medieval city." And that's where Mr. Schmoke comes in. He and his administration are responsible for the deterioration and decline of hope and morale in the city.

If an alien dropped down from outer space and asked a Baltimorean to take me to your leader, the Baltimorean wouldn't know where to go.

Government is in the quality of life business. And the quality of life in Baltimore is slowly, slowly slipping away. It's agreed that Mr. Schmoke has money problems. But, then, the city's always had money problems.

Yet somehow, with all of the hollering and hoopla, there was always an edgy optimism about Baltimore's future. Now the demographers tell us that soon the city's population will drop below 700,000. Just 30 years ago Baltimore was the nation's sixth largest city; now it's number 22 and diving.

But Mr. Schmoke just doesn't get it. He bemoans the plight of the city while at the same time he's allowing his friends and political handlers to prosper at taxpayers' expense.

In case anyone missed the fine print, Edward Hitchcock, a lawyer and new director of the federally financed $100 million empowerment zone effort in the city, was paid $50,000 to investigate problems at the Housing Authority. When asked for a copy of the report, Mr. Schmoke said the report was oral. Questioned about its contents, the mayor said he couldn't remember. Mr. Hitchcock's now making $125,000 for his work on empowerment.

Mr. Schmoke's busy defending public officials and aides who ought to be decapitated and served up on a platter. And all the while the streets are littered and the schools are dying. Loyalty is admirable; blind loyalty is stupid.

What the city needs more than money is leadership.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes on Maryland politics from Owings Mills.

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