Poll may put Schmoke ahead, but city lags


Eight years ago, proud of our ability to perform the simple skills of arithmetic familiar to any fourth-grader, this newspaper pronounced Clarence H. Du Burns no longer among the living. Our pollsters had him trailing Kurt L. Schmoke by 29 points in the race for mayor of Baltimore. Du's gone, our numbers said. You're crazy, Burns replied. This is the simple math, we declared, quite full of ourselves.

Immediately, several things happened: Burns' money dried up, thereby preventing him from running a full-bodied, media-drenched campaign; almost everybody around him, sensing a lost cause, wished him luck and then bolted for the door; and Schmoke, perceived as the bringer of a bright new day, loaded with money, carrying aloft his resume like an Olympic torch, and filling the airwaves with relentless commercials, went on to be elected mayor.

By 3 percentage points.

You want perspective on Sunday's newspaper poll, there's your perspective. This time around, no 29 points. Schmoke leads Mary Pat Clarke by 15 points, and the calendar says there are still two months until primary election day, and the Schmoke slippage can be found in the crevices of the poll.

It says 65 percent of Baltimoreans think crime is the biggest issue facing the city, and you turn to the front page of the Maryland section two days ago and the headline reads, "Gunshots kill 3 over weekend; At least 21 people shot in Baltimore since last Sunday."

The poll says just 9 percent of the voters -- 9 percent! -- think the city's schools have improved in the past eight years, and if you pay attention you noticed high schools generally graduating classes last month in which three-quarters of the kids who arrived in those schools four years ago vanished somewhere along the way. The reading and math scores continue to trail almost every county in this state. And last week we saw the pathetic display at Patterson High School, where hundreds of kids got report cards telling them they had passed when, in fact, they had not. Is that a metaphor for the whole system, or what?

The poll says just 8 percent of the voters -- 8 percent! -- think things are getting better in the city. Do we need a rundown? Middle-class people fleeing to suburbia, the business community furious with City Hall, property taxes choking homeowners, 60,000 jobs lost in the past eight years, the drug dealers ruling entire neighborhoods, public housing a catastrophe, and once-lovely neighborhoods now trashed.

Is all of this the fault of Kurt L. Schmoke? No. Mary Pat Clarke's been employed by this city for the past eight years, though it's the mayor who's got the real power around here.

But Clarke's been handed political gifts from the gods. There's loose money all over the place that the mayor can't, or won't, explain. He makes it look as if he's done something wrong, even if he hasn't. The tourism industry helped save what's left of this city's economy, and created thousands of jobs, and this mayor's managed to enrage everybody who brought it to life. The streets are filthy, and eight years into his administration, he finally declares he'll fire sanitation people who don't do their work.

Eight years ago, in the aftermath of this newspaper's poll showing the 29-point spread, Du Burns suddenly found himself almost friendless. He seemed a forlorn, deluded figure, insisting he could win. What seemed a huge difference in the two men: Du's aides were deserting him, while Schmoke would surely fill City Hall with the brightest people this city had ever seen.

No one, not even the mayor's most enthusiastic backers, would make such a claim today without blushing.

So where does this leave voters? Wondering, frankly, about Mary Pat Clarke. It's easy to be critical (see above). And she has been. But it's another thing to declare what she'd do differently.

Critics say she has no vision. (It takes vision to clean the streets?) They say she's got an erratic personality. (Are you listening, William Donald Schaefer?) They say she can't win, because she's down 15 points and hasn't got enough money. Over eight years, they forget Du Burns.

Is this an endorsement of Clarke? Not at all. But when only 8 percent of all voters, men and women, black and white, think the city's getting better, and Kurt L. Schmoke's been running the show for eight years, criticism seems overdue.

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