Baltimore's long-running political version of "He said, She said" is entering its crucial stage.
With exactly two months to go before the Sept. 12 primary, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, the allies who became rivals, are sharpening their messages as they stake their claims to the city's top office.
Mr. Schmoke, 45, and Mrs. Clarke, 54, were clashing over issues even before they announced their candidacies in the fall of 1993. Now the two Democrats are taking each other on over the most basic urban problems of joblessness, crime and beleaguered schools -- and their competence to find solutions.
The mayor, who is seeking a third term, is beginning to attack Mrs. Clarke as "very inconsistent" in her positions, while highlighting his achievements. Under his leadership, he says, Baltimore has "more strengths than weaknesses."
For her part, Mrs. Clarke is hammering hard at what she calls "the record of failure of Kurt Schmoke." She has kept up steady criticism of
his administration's efforts on education, economic development and crime, even questioning his nationally recognized position on drug decriminalization and treatment.
The mayor has issued the first two in a planned series of five booklets highlighting his accomplishments, but has yet to offer a detailed blueprint for the future.
Mrs. Clarke, on the other hand, has pledged some specific proposals to improve schools and boost the police force, but has talked little about her record as the leader of the 18-member City Council since 1987.
The positions of the candidates on the pressing issues facing the city represent more a difference of degree than a deep divide. Both Mrs. Clarke and Mr. Schmoke come out of the liberal, reform tradition and share many of the same philosophies on government.
In a radio debate Sunday night, for example, Mrs. Clarke called for stepped-up community policing and more treatment for drug addicts -- both of which the mayor supports.
"Drugs are Baltimore's second-largest industry, and frankly Mr. Mayor, any discussion of legalization is tantamount to giving up on the future of 50,000 Baltimoreans who are addicted to heroin and cocaine," she said during the debate on WCBM-AM. Mr. Schmoke was quick to respond that he already has instituted community-oriented police programs and said Mrs. Clarke did nothing to find more money in the city budget for drug treatment.
The mayor, who received national attention early in his administration for advocating that drug addiction be considered more of a public health than a law-enforcement problem, said $5 million in federal empowerment zone funds would be used to treat addicts.
"The key is coming up with the resources. I've been able to do that," he said.
Mr. Schmoke also pledged that if re-elected he would reappoint to a full six-year term Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, calling him one of the best law enforcement leaders in the country. The mayor challenged Mrs. Clarke to say whether she would do the same.
She demurred, but said, "I will work with any commissioner who will understand and work with me on what true community policing is."
With few key substantive issues to separate the candidates, many political observers say voters may wind up basing their decisions on whom they consider the better leader.
"It's going to come down to personalities in a lot of voters' minds," said Herb Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College who has tracked past city elections. "Has he done a good job? And can she sell herself as a credible improvement?"
The unions and citywide civic groups have yet to make their endorsements, as have many of the smaller political clubs.
Mr. Schmoke gained early backing from a coalition of three northeast political groups -- the 43/44 Democratic Club, North Central Democratic Coalition and Third District Metro Citizens; Mrs. Clarke is still looking to pick up her first endorsement.
But the recent action -- or inaction -- of one well-known political club may be telling. At its meeting last month, the New Democratic Coalition-5 endorsed neither candidate.
Despite two ballots, neither candidate could come up with the required approval of 60 percent of the club's membership, said NDC-5 president Larry Eisenstein, an outcome he termed "very unusual."
"I think it generally reflects the mixed sentiments of the club and the electorate as well as to who is best qualified to lead the city," Mr. Eisenstein said.
Mrs. Clarke is waging what many consider a risky campaign in the same tireless, grass-roots style that made her a household name during her nearly 16 years in the council and as its president. She's in the neighborhoods every day, standing at street corners to wave to commuters, going to community meetings and knocking on doors.
Political consultant Arthur W. Murphy calls it her only chance at unseating the mayor, who already has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from three events and is expected to have upward of $2 million, which will guarantee plenty of television and radio commercials.
"The only way to beat money is a protracted struggle," said Mr. Murphy, who is working for council president candidate Vera P. Hall, an ally of the mayor, among others. "You have to start early, it has to be labor intensive, and the candidate has to meet as many people as humanly possible."
The overriding goal of Mrs. Clarke's mailings and her door-to-door campaigning so far has been to translate dissatisfaction with persistent urban problems into dissatisfaction with the mayor.
But she still lacks an easily identifiable campaign theme, the one-sentence slogan that voters associate with a candidate, Mr. Smith said.
In contrast, the mayor's campaign developed a theme early on -- "Mayor Schmoke makes us proud." The slogan, along with his campaign colors of black, red and green, -- "liberation colors" associated with people of African descent -- has been interpreted by some as an appeal to black voters. African-Americans make up more than 60 percent of the electorate.
Mr. Schmoke has already taken to the airwaves with a series of radio spots narrated by actor Charles Dutton and distributed trading cards with his likeness in an attempt to reach younger voters.
Like Mrs. Clarke, he is campaigning daily, shaking hands on the street and appearing at forums at community organizations.
In these appearances, the mayor readily acknowledges he has not been able to solve all the city's woes.
"As a mayor, you don't have a magic wand," Mr. Schmoke told a Monday night meeting of the Fulton Community Association in West Baltimore. But he said, "I'm running for a third term to build on some of the things we've done in the past."
The mayor is using current events to emphasize his leadership and his close ties to President Clinton and Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "Just this morning, I was in Washington and we received a $14 million grant to deal with services to homeless people," he said at the forum.
Already, he is making good on one early campaign promise: to bring up Mrs. Clarke's record in the council.
And so in Sunday's radio debate, Mrs. Clarke jumped on the dTC recent controversy over outside legal fees, saying she would limit and bid out legal work. "We need this money to be funding our basic city services," she said. "I would also require full disclosure, not just because it ends up in a newspaper, but on an annual basis."
Mr. Schmoke said that as council president, Mrs. Clarke had approved payments to many outside law firms whose fees needed approval by the Board of Estimates, of which she is one of five members.
In one case, the mayor said, Mrs. Clarke asked for a specific lawyer without asking that the work be put out for bid. He said later that the case he had in mind was the city's retention in January of George L. Russell Jr. for $15,000 to defend Mrs. Clarke in a suit filed by the owner of a company selling bulletproof vests.
"You can't avoid your responsibility now just because it's a hot topic," Mr. Schmoke said.
On the issue of cuts in the city's property tax rate -- at $5.85 per $100 of assessed value, the highest by far in the state -- Mrs. Clarke said she would support a "steady reduction" in the rate.
Mr. Schmoke defended his record, saying he had cut the property tax three times during his tenure, and attacked Mrs. Clarke's approach.
"In no way did she detail which agencies would get hit with these reductions in money so that the people in our communities will have an idea of what's going to be reduced and when," he said.
And then she said . . .