Clarke's challenge has been eye-opener CAMPAIGN 1995


Mary Pat Clarke was supposed to be down and out by now -- far down in the polls and flat out of money.

Her ambition of unseating Kurt L. Schmoke, Baltimore's nationally prominent mayor, once was deemed practically impossible. As recently as this spring, one political pundit suggested the official image of the Schmoke campaign should be "a steamroller."

Yet, a week before the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, Mrs. Clarke, the City Council president, is within six percentage points of Mr. Schmoke in a voter survey and has raised more than enough cash to press her challenge to the very end.

Mr. Schmoke still is favored by most political analysts to win a third term, but Mrs. Clarke's tenacious opposition has them talking openly about the possibility of an upset. If that occurs, it could well be the first time an incumbent black mayor in a big city with a majority black population is defeated by a white opponent.

"This will draw political scientists by the swarm if it happens," said Marc V. Levine, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who is writing a book on Baltimore's renaissance. "At this point, it hinges largely on turnout . . . and the extent to which there is a significant element in the black community that is ready to desert."

The last days promise a frenzy of activity. There will be fresh radio and television ads from both candidates. Mr. Schmoke will outline his proposals for the next four years, Mrs. Clarke will go door-to-door for her 12th consecutive week, and Gov. Parris N. Glendening will campaign for the mayor.

The mayor, who also has the backing of several unions and a powerful alliance of black ministers, has tried to focus on his accomplishments in office during the past eight years to persuade voters to re-elect him.

But Mrs. Clarke's relentless attacks and her insistence that Baltimore is deteriorating have left him on the defensive. These days, with the endorsements of Mrs. Clarke by The Sun and former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the mayor at times has appeared more embattled than entrenched.

Mrs. Clarke, 54, calls hers an "underdog campaign" but says she's in a good position. "I felt the best thing I could do is challenge the status quo. That's what has made me strong," she said.

As much as two years ago, when he passed up a gubernatorial bid to seek a third term, Mr. Schmoke, 45, said he recognized he would face two opponents: Mrs. Clarke, his rival at City Hall, and a general anti-incumbency sentiment.

RTC Two mid-August polls that showed Mrs. Clarke closing in on Mr. Schmoke, followed by The Sun's endorsement, gave her campaign unexpected momentum, boosting her fund-raising and her profile.

"You can feel it in the air -- there's an energy, a surge," said S. Ronald Ellison, her campaign treasurer, in announcing that the Clarke campaign had collected $753,717 as of Aug. 27, about $50,000 more than its original goal.

Still, the poll and endorsement also have galvanized Mr. Schmoke's supporters, who are rallying around him and organizing a major get-out-the-vote effort.

"For those who have been lackadaisical, who have taken the mayor's re-election for granted, it's one more major wake-up call," said state Sen. Larry Young, a West Baltimore Democrat.

The very notion that Mrs. Clarke could defeat Mr. Schmoke, once dismissed by even some of her most ardent supporters, is the result not only of voter concern over the state of the city, but also the candidates' campaign strategies.

With significantly less money than the mayor, Mrs. Clarke gambled by spending heavily on television commercials weeks before Mr. Schmoke took to the tube. Her first pair of ads, which focused on the city's persistent problems and also highlighted her hands-on style, are considered a major reason for her upswing in the polls.

Mrs. Clarke, who was known for periodic episodes of emotional and erratic behavior during her 16 years in the council, also has remained unrattled in face-to-face debates with the mayor and under attacks by his campaign. And, although she has made it clear that she considers Mr. Schmoke to blame for the city's failings, she has generally limited personal attacks.

In the early going, the mayor's re-election committee tried to make an issue of Mrs. Clarke's personal and campaign finances. The attacks were part of an early Schmoke strategy to raise doubts about Mrs. Clarke, who has a reputation as a champion of neighborhood causes.

Larry S. Gibson, the mayor's chief political strategist, pointed to mistakes in her previous financial disclosure reports to question her ability to run a city with a $2.2 billion budget, and accused her of failing to disclose in a report her family's purchase of an apartment building from the Johns Hopkins University.

When she called a news conference to explain that it was a routine business deal, Mrs. Clarke was confronted by mop-wielding Schmoke supporters who chanted: "Come clean, Mary Pat!" But she refused to allow herself to be provoked.

The controversy over her financial reports faded quickly, but the mayor has faced continuing questions about his campaign colors, which are associated with African-American liberation. As recently as Saturday, Mr. Schmoke had to explain again during a radio debate that he did not consider the colors divisive, but rather a symbol of "pride and empowerment."

The Schmoke campaign, which prides itself on detail-obsessed planning, also has failed to meet some of its own timetables.

Early in the campaign, Mr. Gibson said the mayor would discuss his overall record in June, his specific accomplishments in individual neighborhoods in July and his plans in August.

The mayor has produced an impressive 155-page book on his tenure, but he has just recently begun distributing leaflets in the neighborhoods. He has waited until now to detail his agenda for improving the city if re-elected.

But his campaign theme and colors have appeal; last week, The Afro-American newspaper used them on the cover of its endorsement supplement titled "Making Us Proud," a play on his campaign slogan, "Mayor Schmoke Makes Us Proud." The paper has endorsed the mayor.

His campaign also is taking to the streets to motivate voters, with sound trucks blaring a message from actor Charles Dutton.

"This is Roc, and I'm urging you to vote. Come out and vote for Kurt Schmoke. Kurt Schmoke is the right mayor for Baltimore," the message says.

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