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Schmoke Plays Down Pro-Business Image to Fend Off Challenge NO MORE MR. NICE GUY


When Alex. Brown Inc. announced it would stay in downtown Baltimore recently, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke might well have ordered a ticker-tape parade.

Nearing the end of his second term and running for a third, he might have recited moves made by his administration to retain the brokerage firm's 920 jobs and the millions of dollars in leases, lunches and taxes it puts in circulation.

His opponent, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, peppers him for doing little to shore up the employment base. Others had criticized him for letting USF&G; leave its Inner Harbor tower.

So here was an opportunity for Mr. Schmoke to declare, "Baltimore's holding its own, thanks to my leadership."

But he was nowhere to be seen or heard. His tepid comments on the firm's decision were conveyed by a spokesperson.

After eight years, the city has stopped waiting for its incumbent mayor to be a cheerleader -- not one of his strengths. But this is campaign season, three months from primary election day, so Mr. Schmoke's failure to crow loudly, immediately and in person seems explainable only as a part of a conscious and curious political strategy.

For him, good economic news can actually be bad in some quarters -- and fighting with businessmen has become a hallmark of his re-election effort in 1995. Business, the jobs it provides and the campaign contributions it makes have always been important to politicians. But for Mr. Schmoke, whose 1995 fund is robust, that alliance has been less important.

Whether they come or go, the Schmoke campaign seems to have concluded, business leaders, stock brokers and conventions will have little to do with the mayor's re-election prospects. Quite the contrary, perhaps.

His absence from the symbolic stage erected by Alex. Brown offers the most recent example. It came soon after his decision to seize control of the city's Convention Board. In both situations, he seemed anxious to say, "I'm not a part of the business crowd. They're not order ing me around. I'm not doing them any special favors."

Thus in the Alex. Brown situation, the usual good news photo op with the mayor and the happy CEO might have communicated too much closeness. His opponent is a neighborhood-based constituent service provider regarded by some as a populist.

Mr. Schmoke's image has always been different. A graduate of Harvard (undergrad) and Yale (law), his resume is an asset with a downside: He has been dogged by the suggestion that he is a bit aloof, separated from workaday Baltimoreans and their concerns. His campaign-year confrontations with businessmen seem designed to counter this view.

Mr. Schmoke might have applauded the civic commitment of A. B. "Buzzy" Krongard, Alex. Brown's chief operating officer. Mr. Krongard would then have returned the compliment, citing diligent efforts to accommodate his firm. Such courtesies are usually exchanged even when hard bargaining gives the words a bitter taste -- as it apparently did in this case.

Snub for snub

The company pointedly declined to take much public credit for ** its decision to stay -- a decision that might still be changed.

The Schmoke administration's contribution to this testy atmosphere seems doubly perplexing, aside from its political dimension, because so many corporations have moved away. And, again, because it was not the first time the Schmoke administration seemed to be at war with business.

A thoughtful man of mild manner and cool rhetoric, Mr. Schmoke has been uncommonly combative this year, as if his unofficial slogan had become "No More Mr. Nice Guy."

Business and Schaefer

He took on Henry Rosenberg, the Crown Central Petroleum owner and civic volunteer who headed the Convention Board. In this action, the mayor may have had two objectives: In addition to the divorce from business, he was taking a shot at Mr. Rosenberg's friend, William Donald Schaefer, who then seemed to be considering another run for mayor.

Mr. Schaefer tells all who will listen that Baltimore is failing and urges businessmen to believe change of any kind is preferable to four more years of Mr. Schmoke -- even if the alternative is Mrs. Clarke, a figure whose populism and volatility have frightened them in the past.

Mr. Schmoke challenged Mr. Schaefer to get into the race or shut up -- and promised, if the former mayor and governor took the bait, to prove that the Schaefer-led renaissance was mostly "myth."

By now, it seems certain Mr. Schaefer will not run: His old team is not rushing about organizing and coyly denying his intentions. And he's helping Mrs. Clarke, making critiques that allow her to stand above the early mudslinging -- and actively raising money for her campaign. He will host a fund-raiser for her soon.

As for Mr. Schmoke, a number of political figures in Baltimore say confronting business meshes with the appeal to African-American ethnic pride. Though he has always been able to draw significant votes from white neighborhoods, his focus this year has been black voters.

"We're going to have intentional race conflict," says 2nd District City Councilman Carl Stokes, a candidate for council president who opposes the Schmoke-backed contender, Councilwoman Vera P. Hall of the 5th District.

"They've written off whites to build black pride. That's what Larry and the boys have decided," Mr. Stokes says, referring to Larry Gibson, a University of Maryland Law School professor as well as Mr. Schmoke's close friend and political adviser.

This approach could well be a winner, says 4th District Democrat Lawrence A. Bell III after last Tuesday evening's meeting of Harbel, a Northeast neighborhood organization, "but we don't want the residual effect." This could include polarization of the city population and an acceleration of flight to the suburbs.

There is nothing new, of course, in ethnic politics, certainly not in Baltimore, where Jewish, Italian and Polish politicians won on ethnic pride for generations. The difference lies in the potential for deeper black-white divisions and alienation, which would be difficult to overcome after the election. The same risk is there for Mr. Schmoke in the business baiting -- though, some say, his relationships with business were not terrific before the campaign.

The mayor's supporters believe he will stop whatever slide in popularity he has seen simply by campaigning hard, relying on his considerable ability to explain what he's been doing and where he wants to take the city.

Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, Democrat of Baltimore, a Schmoke partisan, says the mayor's command of issues gives him an immediate advantage over Mrs. Clarke, who, the delegate says, seems willing to rely on "sloganeering."

If some are unhappy with the mayor's performance, Mr. Rosenberg says, he can win them back by making some adroit concessions.

"He could say, 'Look, I have made mistakes. I haven't been perfect but I've learned in my eight years. I may be a Rhodes scholar, but I'm still learning.' That's good politics."

At the same time, Mr. Rosenberg does not dispute the view that his candidate had "a bad May." In addition to various other problems, the mayor's housing commissioner, Daniel P. Henson III, reportedly said that an exodus of Jews and whites resulted in blight in Northwest Baltimore. Mr. Henson denied making the comments, but they were taken by some as proof that the mayor's team is prepared to win or lose with the city's black voters.

For Baltimore politicians observing this race from many vantage points, it shapes up this way three months from primary day:

Mr. Schmoke wants to be certain black voters turn out in very large numbers and enter the voting booth infused with racial pride. If he seems put upon by business or challenged by Mr. Schaefer -- or criticized too harshly by Mrs. Clarke -- that threat will help to produce the excitement needed to get the necessary turnout.

Mrs. Clarke can counter this strategy implicitly because she is VTC not seen as an enemy by opinion leaders, black or white.

"She's at everybody's community meeting. She's there for you when you need her. She's in your churches. They can't catch up with her even if they wanted to," says a state legislator and likely Schmoke supporter who requested anonymity. "Even those who love Schmoke don't hate her. If she and her campaign can paint Schmoke as a very ineffective leader, instead of voting against him black voters might stay home."

So, if a sufficient number of white voters turn out -- provoked, perhaps, by Mr. Schmoke's campaign -- and Mrs. Clarke gets a reasonable share of the black vote, she could win. With the mayor having directed his efforts away from white Baltimoreans, Mrs. Clarke might get as much as 95 percent of that vote.

The contest will be about more than race, of course.

"The citizens of Maryland have the right to expect bolder leadership, greater efficiency and more creative planning that offers some hope of solutions to Baltimore City's problems," says the Homeowners' Coalition of Baltimore, a taxpayer group claiming to represent more than 210 neighborhood associations.

"Make no mistake," it says in a current newsletter, "the current City Administration can lay no claim to an outstanding performance, but the opposition must do more than point to the record."

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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