The Other Not-Schmoke


William Donald Schaefer has joined the ABS camp: Anybody (for mayor) But (Kurt) Schmoke. Why else would he throw his support to a candidate, Mary Pat Clarke, he can't stand?

Mr. Schaefer's dislike of Mr. Schmoke goes back to the late 1970s. He's never taken to the Schmoke style. He feels everything has been handed to Mr. Schmoke, that success in life has come too easily, that he's never had to claw his way up from the bottom political rung, as Don Schaefer had to.

He still recalls how Mr. Schmoke, as a young state's attorney, fell asleep at cabinet meetings and regularly overspent his budget. It infuriated then-Mayor Schaefer. In later years, as Governor Schaefer, he fumed when his old city aides were fired abruptly, when Mr. Schmoke fumbled the economic-development ball, when Mr. Schmoke took on the governor over decriminalization of marijuana.

So it comes as no surprise that the ex-mayor and ex-governor is voicing support for an ABS candidate.

But why Ms. Clarke? The two never got along during Mr. Schaefer's City Hall days. He is quick to point out to friends that Ms. Clarke probably isn't up to the job of running the city.

And yet, the two have some common links. They started as community activists. They bring a high degree of energy and zest to political life. They are instinctive, emotional politicians. They focus on the nitty-gritty -- making sure alleys are cleaned, making sure streets are paved, making sure complaints to City Hall are handled quickly. They are "do it now" types. And they are incessant cheerleaders for Baltimore.

Still, the larger question is why Mr. Schaefer opted for Ms. Clarke in the mayor's race when there is a far more compatible candidate available?

That simpatico candidate is, of course, William Donald Schaefer.

No one else on the horizon has his grasp of city government, his understanding of the city psyche, his strong support from the business community. And no one else has the potential to lift the city's spirits and revive its aliveness.

But Mr. Schaefer, apparently, doesn't have another political battle in him. He's been seeking election for 40 years. His chief fund-raiser and organizer, Irvin Kovens, is dead. There's no one, it seems, to resurrect his formidable campaign apparatus. And he's worried about what it would mean to his reputation if he ended his political career as a loser.

That's a shame, because Baltimore could use him as a candidate for mayor. And Mr. Schaefer needs the challenge.

A Schaefer candidacy would assure a loud and public airing of critical city issues, such as crime, education, economic development. It's a debate this city desperately needs to have. And Mr. Schaefer's quirky but magnetic personality guarantees the kind of intense media coverage that would get everyone in town talking about what Baltimore's next mayor ought to be doing. He's the only candidate who can raise the cash to go toe-to-toe with the well-financed Mr. Schmoke.

Mrs. Clarke has neither of those attributes.

If Mr. Schaefer fails to enter this campaign, he will regret it. He will never know if he could have won. And he will never know if he could have turned the city around. As the old lottery motto put it, "You've gotta play to win."

Mr. Schaefer still has time to reconsider and file, either for the primary or the general election. Mr. Schmoke's operatives are daring him to do it. They'd love to destroy what Larry S. Gibson calls the "Schaefer myth."

Yet if Mr. Schaefer sits on the sidelines, the Gibson-Schmoke strategy may still be to rewrite history so that the Schaefer years are portrayed as the time when the city went to seed, while the Schmoke years are pictured as a time of slow but steady resurrection.

Can Mr. Schaefer run and win in a city that has changed so dramatically since he last campaigned for mayor in 1983? It certainly would be a bruising and difficult struggle. He might even be a decided underdog. Or a decided loser.

He would, though, have the satisfaction of knowing he had tried, that he had given it his all, and that he did not let this last opportunity pass without giving it his best shot.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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