The City Is Her Stage Mary Pat Clarke rolls into the campaign's final stage CAMPAIGN 1995

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Me and my town,

Battered about,

Everyone in it

Would like to get out.

But me and my town,

& We just wanna be loved

"Me and My Town,"

( Stephen Sondheim musical

"Anyone Can Whistle"

Watching Mary Pat Clarke on the campaign trail, strange thoughts occur, possibly because no one ever gets to eat. She may not become Madame Mayor, but she'd make a great musical. She waves her arms. She tells jokes. She makes wonderful, expressive faces. At parties, she does a mean Electric Slide.

Call it "Mary Pat!" Reunite Andrew Lloyd Webber and Patti LuPone. For the first act finale, let Mrs. Clarke and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke sing that old "Annie Get Your Gun" showstopper, "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better."

Or maybe it's the miasmal weather that has brought on these thoughts. It is one of the hottest days in Baltimore's record-breaking summer and, at 5 p.m., the 54-year-old City Council president is still campaigning. She's already pushed a new curfew bill through a special City Council session and chatted up senior citizens at Roland Park Place. A neighborhood meeting will take up most of her Friday evening.

If it's rush hour, it must be time for "the wave" at a busy intersection. In concession to the 97-degree temperature, she exchanges her silk blouse and jacket for a red "Mary Pat Clarke for Baltimore" T-shirt, but still has on her skirt, hose, high heels and determined smile.

She starts at Charles Street and University Parkway, where a transformer has blown, knocking out traffic lights. After conferring briefly with a public works crew on the scene, she relocates to a grassy median a few blocks south. Apparently not even Mrs. Clarke can get a traffic signal fixed in five minutes.

But the heat doesn't make a dent in her famous energy. She waves delightedly at the afternoon drivers. Some wave, or honk back, others stare slack-jawed from inside their air-conditioned cars as if to ask, Is she crazy?

Is she crazy? Two years ago, Mrs. Clarke set out on what was considered a kamikaze political mission, declaring for the Democratic nomination for mayor. When Mayor Schmoke decided to run for re-election, she didn't back down, although conventional wisdom said a white woman could not beat an incumbent black mayor in Baltimore.

Today, with the Sept. 12 primary less than three weeks away, Mary Pat Clarke looks crazy like a fox. This week a Mason-Dixon poll shows Mrs. Clarke within six points of the mayor, narrowing a gap that had been 15 points only a month earlier. Money is flowing into the campaign and, win or lose, this one-time teacher is teaching the old-time pols quite a lesson.

Race and gender may prove to be less important to this race than sheer style. Mrs. Clarke and Mayor Schmoke, never pals, make an interesting contrast. Hot vs. cool, fast vs. deliberate, grass-roots vs. buttoned-down. Asked repeatedly by voters to explain how she is different from Mr. Schmoke, Mrs. Clarke says: "Simple. I'll get things done."

That's this unabashed liberal's stock in trade. The queen of can do, the princess of potholes, the Tinkerbell of the tangible. Everyone in the city has her number -- literally. They call her at home, all hours of the night. Water main busted, street needs paving, suburban kids prowling for drugs in your neighborhood? Call Mary Pat.

It's a tricky legacy, one she wants to embrace and transcend. Yes, she gets things fixed. But she also needs to prove she has that most intangible of political qualities, leadership.

Twenty years ago, she was coaxed into her first race by Alfred Barry and Joyce Leviton, two friends from the New Democratic Club. The mother of four children, ages 5 through 10, she had never given a thought to running for office. Everyone always assumed her husband, Joe, was the future office-holder.

But as her friends lobbied her, she began to see the idea's appeal. She agreed to run. Since then, Mary Pat Clarke's name has been on city ballots every four years, first in the 2nd District, then for council president. She hasn't always won, but she's always come back.

Stores are for rent,

Theaters are dark,

Grass on the sidewalks

But not in the park,

Me and my town,

' We just wanna be loved!

Joe and Mary Pat Clarke, two small children in tow, arrived in Baltimore on a gray, dismal day in March 1967. Mr. Clarke, who had been born in the city, was looking forward to his homecoming and his new job in management at WCBM radio.

Mrs. Clarke was happy for her husband, but dismayed at the dreary landscape before her. It looked like a bleak place to put down roots. And this was before the riots of 1968.

Born Mary Patricia Hines in Providence, R.I., in 1941, to a chemical engineer and a social worker, the young mother had lived in several places in her life, but considered the Philadelphia area home. It was there, at age 14, she met and began dating J. Joseph Clarke, just six months older.

She had assumed the Clarkes would eventually make their way back to Philadelphia. But here they were in Baltimore, unpacking boxes in a brick rowhouse on Cloverhill Road, in the close-knit community of Tuscany-Canterbury.

Twenty-eight years later, they're still there, in the same house, one of the smallest on the street. Oh, they thought about moving from time to time, to a larger place on a larger lot, but they never found anything they liked as much.

And somewhere along the way, Mary Pat Clarke also became more Baltimore-than-thou.

"I was born here," Mayor Schmoke has reminded voters, almost testily.

Mary Pat Clarke was born again here. In her neighborhood, she found a sense of community and discovered she could make a difference.

"She's a convert," says her husband, now a local real estate developer. "And you know what they say about converts making the strictest adherents."

She loves the city so much, she even professes ambivalence over the slogan for her television ads: "If it's broke, fix it." Clever, she admits, but she's worried it makes Baltimore look bad.

Still, she manages to marshal a few unsavory statistics on the stump. Tens of thousands of jobs lost. Schools falling apart. Crime a fact of life for every citizen.

Even Mrs. Clarke has been a victim. Car theft, burglary, a purse snatching in broad daylight. Of course, Mrs. Clarke being Mrs. Clarke, she knew her mugger's mother.

The story of Mrs. Clarke's political baptism begins with her pushinga stroller up and down her tree-lined street in North Baltimore. Have four kids in five years, you push a lot of strollers. She and the other mothers walked together, talking about parochial concerns. Schools, safety, the speeding commuters who used their street as a shortcut.

Stops and starts

One day, they had the brainstorm of dragging an old construction sawhorse into the street at rush hour. Cars had to stop until the mothers walked out and removed the obstacle, explaining politely why it was there.

Mrs. Clarke had just solved her first problem.

From sidewalk activist, it wasn't much of a leap to the New Democratic Club, and then the Greater Homewood Association, one of the first community umbrella groups in the city. She ended up fighting the leadership of her own political club to win its endorsement for her first city council run in 1975. She proved to be the top vote-getter.

Two steps up, one step back. After eight years on the council, Mrs. Clarke ran for president, against Clarence H. "Du" Burns, and lost. She won the position in 1987, only to be confronted by a dozen colleagues who stripped the position of all power on the night she was sworn into office.

In Baltimore's strong-mayor system, the council president's duties are limited primarily to committee appointments. The so-called "Dirty Dozen," the council's old guard, voted to let the majority make such decisions, worried that Mrs. Clarke might push too hard, too fast, to appoint women and blacks. Mrs. Clarke never forgot this humiliation.

This brings us to March 25, 1991.

In the lore of Mary Pat Clarke, this night is generally treated as the evening she took the sword from the stone and lopped off a few heads with it, regaining her position's traditional powers. And, if you spend most of your time staring at the dandelion yellow walls of the council chamber, it is pretty exciting, probably the most exciting thing ever seen on the city's cable access channel. Gavel banging! Parliamentary procedure threatened!

Then again, if you happen to have a life, you might wonder what the fuss is all about. "It's about power," Mrs. Clarke says on the videotape, one of the greatest hits in City Hall's department of Legislative Reference. "It's about women. It's about justice."

The camera angles could not be more unflattering, peering down on the council president in her high-backed chair, so her face looks sharp, her eyes insect-like behind her glasses. Her voice, seldom melodious, sounds particularly harsh.

The personal is the political, feminists have said. Mrs. Clarke, who could have achieved her ends quietly by waiting a mere two weeks, chose to draw attention to herself, to demand and then flaunt her power.

Mrs. Clarke's critics say she has played to the cameras throughout her career. They say she is running against the mayor's record, not on her own strengths. They say she is best known as a nay-sayer, fighting the privatization of city schools, the subway system, even the development of Harborplace, the cornerstone of the city's renaissance.

Although sometimes visibly wounded by criticism, Mrs. Clarke says she usually can ignore it. And when she reads articles in the local papers, she says, she skips all the adjectives and adverbs. Words like "shrill," or "impulsive" or the always favorite phrase, "Mary Pat Clarke yesterday blasted plans to [fill in the city project of your choice]."

Getting along swimmingly

Joe Clarke is on the phone, rifling through the pile of books on his wife's bedside table. Well, here's a surprise: Mrs. Clarke tries to read about a dozen books at once.

"I'm embarrassed to say this, but she loves that 'Clan of the Cave Bear'-type stuff," Mr. Clarke says. "She's also reading all the African-American women writers -- Alice Walker, Toni Morrison."

Other books waiting for the council president's attention are William Manchester's "The Last Lion," a couple of Maeve Binchy books, "The Mists of Avalon" and at least two books on yoga. Double-jointed Mrs. Clarke is thinking about trying the meditative exercise again.

Books figure largely in this house of English majors, and in the lives of their grown children, John, Erin, Susan and Jenny. Mrs. Clarke, a teacher with a masters in education from the University of Pennsylvania, made sure her children could read before they entered school.

Mrs. Clarke made two other vows: Her children would not be shy and they would know how to swim. "I sometimes think I have permanently withered feet from standing in the shallow end of local pools, watching them swim."

She, of course, cannot swim, and considers herself painfully shy.

How can this outgoing, seemingly uninhibited woman describe herself as introverted? "That's what I love about this job," she says. "I can go to your doorstep and introduce myself, drop in on your festival, dance at your Bull Roast. You can't do that if you're not an elected official."

But if you're shy, why would you want to do these things?

Former City Council President Walter L. Orlinsky, a Clarke supporter, says he understands. "I suspect that most of us who are in this business are, in fact, shy and are really overcompensating. I would guess, if you want to get deeply psychological, a public person is more often than not a lonely person. Don Schaefer was a shy person, too."

These comparisons to former Governor Schaefer keep coming up, even though he and Mrs. Clarke fought openly while he was mayor and she was on the council. Part of this may be Baltimore's fondness for the Willie Don yardstick: All politicians in the 1990s are evaluated according to their Schaefer quotient.

The ex-governor and Mrs. Clarke have other things in common, besides their animosity toward Mr. Schmoke. They are often portrayed as emotional, impulsive and unstable. Mrs. Clarke must answer yet one more accusation: She has a drinking problem.

She and her husband have been put into the position of denying this repeatedly. Mrs. Clarke tends to reject it out of hand; Mr. Clarke says the only problem his wife has is forgetting to eat, which can make a glass of white wine pack quite a wallop at the end of the day.

But it's the instability thing, the idea she's a loose cannon, that really dogs her. Richard Doran, vice president of Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia, has known the Clarkes for more than 30 years. Active in politics in his home state, he often hears people saying his old friend is crazy, or flaky. He finds this confounding.

"She's extremely level-headed, with a lot of common sense," he says. "And I've been around politics long enough to know a flake when I see one."

She does have a "peripatetic" speaking style, he concedes. Nice word. It derives from the Greek, "to walk about" and refers to the followers of Aristotle, strolling in the Lyceum. It is hard to reconcile with a woman who says "You gotta talk the walk" and "You gotta hold what you fold." A Kenny Rogers allusion? Or a laundry metaphor?

Come on the train,

Come on the bus,

Somebody please buy a ticket to us.

Hurry on down --

We need a little renown.

Love me, love my town.

Why did Mary Pat Clarke run for mayor? She could have stayed safe in the council president's fourth-floor office at City Hall, waiting until the mayor picked his next political way station.

"He wouldn't talk to me," she says, sitting in her office. She says she's not talking about some personal slight, but the mayor's reluctance to discuss the city's future with her.

"So I said, 'You won't talk to me? Then beat me.' "

The night she spent in Lexington Terrace convinced her she must run, her aides say. She has always moved freely through the city, going into neighborhoods few North Baltimore matrons ever see. But this was different.

She and the mayor had been invited by the high-rise's outraged residents to spend a night and see what it's like to live there. Typically, she beat him there. She has a way of undercutting him like that -- tracking down the addict his office has ignored, helping a constituent in his own neighborhood. So she was the first to see the trash, the water damage from broken pipes, the empty apartments. She saw faucets that never stopped running, waded through the trashed stairwells, and cradled a sick baby in her arms. Getting stuck in the elevator, however, was strictly unplanned.

Nine months later, she announced for mayor, with the candid assertion that she probably didn't have a chance.

Now she has a chance. But that doesn't mean things have gotten easier. In some ways, this has been one of the toughest years of her life.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, Mrs. Clarke was at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. Her father died this year, her mother has been ill, and now her husband was in the hospital for surgery to remove polyps from his colon.

She felt as if she had been running for mayor forever, and the race was only really beginning.

For a moment, the famous energy ebbed out of her. She stared disconsolately out the window, at the classic Baltimore view to the south -- the rowhouses, the port, the traffic along Eastern Avenue.

Alfred Barry, the man who first came to her door 20 years ago and said "Run, Mary Pat," stood beside her.

Now he said: "Mary Pat, you've got to be proud of the fact that you can look out this window and immediately pick out five aspects of people's lives or businesses that you've improved on."

"Let me think about that," she said. Then she began counting. The neighborhood below had wanted a zoning change to restrict the number of apartments being carved out of single-family homes. There was a house, no longer vacant because of her efforts. Within minutes, she had found five things, and she cheered up.

This is how she sees Baltimore. Mary Pat Clarke -- the princess of potholes, the queen of can do, the Tinkerbell of the tangible -- narrows her eyes and tallies the small things that add up to a big picture.

Her and her town, they just wanna be loved.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
34°