The winner of this year's race for mayor of Baltimore may be the losing candidate.
Whether it is incumbent Kurt L. Schmoke or Mary Pat Clarke, the situation in Baltimore is so dreary the next mayor may wish he or she had thrown the election.
After Newt Gingrich and friends finish their root canal of the federal budget, aid to the cities will be dramatically lower. After Parris Glendening and conservatives in the legislature cut state taxes by cutting future state aid to localities, Baltimore's share will shrink. After Montgomery County wins its fight for more highway aid in the suburbs, Baltimore's treasury will take another hit.
None of this even touches on the high tax rate, the continuing flight of big companies from the city, the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in recent years and the trek of the middle class to the suburbs.
Or the distressing crime and drug situations, the almost insurmountable housing dilemma, the strangulation of the public schools by an incompetent and entrenched bureaucracy, the inept and lethargic economic development efforts and the frustration of most thinking Baltimoreans.
Is this laying it on too thick? Is this outlook too gloomy? Are there blue skies on the horizon?
Mayor Schmoke wants us to believe that is so. He is the eternal optimist. Listening to him, you would think the crime, education and economic development problems are on the mend.
If only it were so. The mayor's smile isn't shared by many business or community leaders.
It certainly isn't shared by Mary Pat Clarke. Her main claim to the mayor's office seems to be that she would get Baltimore going again. She is a community worker, a booster of neighborhoods, a micro-manager in the William Donald Schaefer mode who makes sure potholes are filled and gripes are responded to immediately. It would be quite a change from the cerebral Schmoke administration.
But even under a Clarke mayoralty, would the city's fortunes improve? There surely would be more energy at City Hall and more enthusiasm to solve problems pronto. There might even be more creativity. The underlying crisis, though, would remain.
As Baltimore is denied federal funds and state funds, how is the city going to cope with its huge numbers of poor and sick residents, its AIDS population, its large drug population, its diminished business district, its crime and grime?
There seems to be genuine uncertainty in many neighborhoods about whether Mr. Schmoke or Ms. Clarke is the better candidate. Especially in black communities, many are reluctant to conclude that one of their own may not be up to the job. Abandoning a black incumbent mayor would be a wrenching step. But Ms. Clarke has often been more accessible, more sympathetic and far more responsive.
Then there is the corruption issue. Not necessarily legal corruption, but moral and ethical failings.
Free spending in the housing agency that ends up in the pockets of friends, relatives and Schmoke backers; channeling legal work to a favored law firm and its designated subcontractors; unofficial work by the same law firm reviewing virtually every major city contract before the mayor's office acts; filling jobs with loyalists who can't get things done.
So far, Ms. Clarke hasn't run an anti-corruption campaign. Her complaint is about the ineptness of the Schmoke acolytes. They've made a mess of housing, education and economic development. They've alienated the business community. They are presiding over a crumbling infrastructure. They have no compelling vision for the future.
Yet the Clarke vision isn't reassuring, either. She knows all the populist phrases -- "Put Baltimore Back to Work," "Make Schools Safe Again," "Get Guns Off the Street," "Zero Tolerance for Drugs." She aims to please.
But behind these slogans there's little hard substance. Concepts are poorly defined. No one has thought about how to pay for these plans or how to implement them. It's the equivalent of a souffle -- pleasing, light and filled with plenty of air.
Compare that to Mr. Schmoke's record, which is similar to a weak stew -- lots of potatoes and juices but little meat. It's filling, but low in proteins.
What a match-up. More of the same, bland inertia. Or frenetic action without much careful thought.
Pity the Baltimore voters. They actually have to choose.
Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.