What everyone expected to be a hotly contested mayoral race in Baltimore is off to an explosive start over an unexpected issue -- ethics.
At a time when Baltimore is struggling with crime, poor public schools and the middle-class migration to the suburbs, the election debate has been dominated by questions raised by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke about the financial reports of his rival, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke.
The mayor and his chief political strategist have tried to keep Mrs. Clarke on the defensive with four weeks of criticism they say was inspired partly by her suggestions that the Schmoke administration is "corrupt."
Nevertheless, the rhetoric seems particularly surprising given that both are longtime public officials out of the liberal, reform tradition and have seldom faced serious criticisms over their conduct.
"I think we're looking at two people whose character I think highly of," said Luca Zacharias, president of the Belair-Edison Community Association. "I don't worry about this kind of stuff a whole lot unless it's someone unknown."
It's also something of a departure for Mr. Schmoke, better known for his low-key and polished campaign style. In 1987, when Mr. Schmoke made history by becoming Baltimore's first elected black mayor, he promised fresh leadership but limited his criticism of the incumbent, Clarence H. Du Burns, the first black man to assume the office.
But two days ago, Mr. Schmoke outlined Mrs. Clarke's failure to disclose on a required report that she had co-signed a $1 million loan. Her husband used the money to buy and renovate an apartment building.
The Schmoke campaign move, which came after three weeks of repeated questions over Mrs. Clarke's campaign finances, was designed to portray a pattern of deception.
Both Mr. Schmoke and his chief political strategist said yesterday they were retaliating after Mrs. Clarke suggested the administration was "corrupt" in allowing no-bid housing repair contracts to go to his brother-in-law and friends of top housing officials.
"I think some people have forgotten that this woman called me a criminal and corrupt just a few weeks ago," Mr. Schmoke said yesterday. "I can't afford to fail to respond when someone takes a personal shot at me on any level."
He added, however, that he is "willing to call a detente. . . . If my opponent is going to talk about the issues and not me personally, I'm happy to do it."
TC Mrs. Clarke denied calling Mr. Schmoke "a criminal" but said it was legitimate to ask questions about the $25.6 million housing repair program, which has been the subject of a highly critical federal audit and continuing federal corruption probe. "The world is raising questions about that. They have not been answered," she said.
Repeating that she wanted to focus on issues of education, public safety and jobs, Mrs. Clarke added: "We intend to set the standard for conducting a campaign on the issues and about the future. How they choose to conduct this campaign is their problem."
Despite her assertion, her mayoral campaign blueprint makes clear that she, too, is looking at ethics.
"We expect to link the mayor to his record and to the ethical and management failures of his administration through an aggressive publicity campaign," the pamphlet says.
Last year, it was revealed that Baltimore schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey had not filed the required annual disclosure report for more than three years.
And in citing Mrs. Clarke's omission of information about a loan on her financial disclosure report, the Schmoke campaign leaves itself open to questions about why some administration appointees are not required to file disclosure forms at all.
They include the top administrators of Baltimore's economic development agency as well as the corporation set up to oversee the city's $100 million federal empowerment zone grant. Both are quasi-public organizations.
Alan R. Yuspeh, head of the city's ethics board, says Baltimore's ethics law is very specific about which city officials are required to submit financial disclosure reports and there is not a "catchall" to cover administrators of quasi-public groups. "Now might be an opportune time to look at that list," he said.
Unprecedented or not, the mayor's campaign chairman, Larry S. Gibson, insisted that questions raised by Mrs. Clarke's campaign and financial disclosure reports are relevant. "The issue is who should be mayor," he said. "Part of the issue is what kind of people do we have running. The issue is one of competence and character."
Whether the Schmoke campaign is succeeding in raising doubts about Mrs. Clarke's credibility is in itself a question.
"If he finds enough of these things, he might try to establish a pattern and have the public wonder a bit," said Patricia Florestano, a professor of government and public administration the University of Baltimore. "But I still think it's a little early in the game to find something this obscure and have it make a dent."