Can Mary Pat Clarke control herself? Or will she self-destruct by the September 12 municipal election?
These questions may decide whether the City Council president will have any chance to become Baltimore's first woman mayor. Even her best-laid plans may go awry unless she can avoid the unpredictable mood shifts that often affect her when she is under a great deal of stress and working hard.
Among elected city officials, Ms. Clarke is the perpetual-motion machine. In her scheduling, she seems terribly overextended, rushing from one community meeting to another, giving her pep talks and greeting both big and little people by their first names.
Her City Hall office provides no relief from the pressures of a troubled city. It is a hectic clearinghouse for a flabbergasting variety of constituent complaints. People call her office because they know Ms. Clarke's staff can be counted on to produce results.
All this takes its toll.
Two years ago, when the City Council was winding up its spring session, Ms. Clarke was behaving so erratically even her allies expressed concern. She would explode in the middle of council meetings and bombard members with bizarre midnight telephone calls. A number of council members told her to stop calling them at home.
With the mayoral campaign moving into high gear, she is facing greater pressures than before. Ms. Clarke, who is white, is trying to prevent Kurt L. Schmoke, Baltimore's first elected African-American mayor, from winning a third term. Although the Democratic primary is not until after Labor Day, the contest is getting nasty early and has acquired racial overtones.
So far, Ms. Clarke has been able to control her behavior. But she is tensing up.
This was seen recently, when reporter Betty Ann Bowser tried to interview her for PBS' McNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.
Locally, Ms. Clarke has strongly condemned the Schmoke administration for its management of Baltimore's vacant-housing program. But on that particular day, she did not want to talk to a nationwide audience about the mismanaged project.
"I'm having a bad day, and you're just part of it," she reportedly snapped to Ms. Bowser.
Similarly, Ms. Clarke went livid after Larry S. Gibson, who runs Mayor Schmoke's re-election campaign, suggested that politics led her to choose an African-American funeral home to bury her father.
There are those in the political community who firmly believe Mr. Gibson is intentionally trying to provoke Ms. Clarke and get her unraveled. An uncontrollable emotional explosion in public would cast serious questions about the City Council president's suitability for the chief executive's office.
If this indeed is Mr. Gibson's game, he plays it better than virtually anyone else.
I got some first-hand evidence of this in the early 1970s, when Mr. Gibson, then a brash young lawyer, was a minority member on the Baltimore city school board.
Mr. Gibson was smarter than probably anyone else on that racially polarized panel. He loved to jerk the other members' chains. Through his procedural and rhetorical maneuvers he tied the board up in so many knots some heated meetings lasted past 2 a.m.!
If Ms. Clarke's psychological portrait seems easy to draw, Mr. Schmoke's is far more difficult.
He rarely loses his cool in public and never spectacularly. The absence of expressive emotion in Mr. Schmoke's public persona resembles that of Michael Dukakis, the ill-fated Democratic presidential candidate who was seen by many to be lacking in compassion.
Since public explosions are not part of Mr. Schmoke's psychological makeup, he seldom exhibits a sense of outrage at things that go wrong in the city or impatience about getting problems solved and corrected.
Some in political life contend Ms. Clarke gets criticized for her occasional outbursts not only because she has them but because she is a woman. "William Donald Schaefer had his temper tantrums and no one ever criticized him or wondered whether he was stable enough to hold the high posts he occupied," one observer said.
Indeed, while he was the chief executive of Baltimore, Mr. Schaefer was so often and so predictably peeved that City Hall journalists nicknamed him "Mayor Annoyed."
Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.