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Clarke's Loss Ends An Era


Right up to the end, as she stood in a crowd of placard-waving supporters of the mayor and saw her chances slipping away, Mary Pat Clarke mustered enough of her determined enthusiasm to manage a wan smile as she shook hands.

"Remember me when you vote," she urged one woman walking into Fort Worthington Elementary School in East Baltimore an hour and a half before the polls closed Tuesday.

"Remember me inside," she said to another voter. "Remember me."

Now that Mrs. Clarke's risky bid to unseat Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has been crushed, she is leaving the political life that made her a household name in Baltimore. And the question is how she will be remembered.

For two decades, she was one of the city's most visible and popular politicians. She was constantly out in the neighborhoods, racing from one meeting to the next, tramping through alleys looking for trash and abandoned cars, handing out yellow fliers with the telephone numbers of city agencies to everyone she saw.

But her independence and iconoclasm during her 16 years in the Baltimore City Council, the last eight as its president, at times earned her the enmity of the political and corporate establishment. She inspired the council to be more activist, but she also was known for emotional episodes and was criticized for the escalating tensions that led to a breakdown in etiquette.

Mrs. Clarke, 54, built a reputation as a tireless champion of community causes and as a pothole fixer extraordinaire. A liberal and populist, she talked of forging a political coalition of women, African-Americans, gay rights activists, neighborhood leaders and others who had been excluded from power.

It was the way she rose in government -- campaigning as a grass-roots activist and forming partnerships with black candidates to win a council seat in 1975, again in 1979, and to capture the council presidency in a three-way race in 1987.

However, her attempts at creating a strong enough coalition to defeat Mr. Schmoke, who made history in 1987 by becoming Baltimore's first elected black mayor, failed badly. None of the city's black legislators backed her, nor did the ministers of African-American churches, as they had in the past. She had fared well in predominantly black precincts in other campaigns, but against Mr. Schmoke, she got less than 10 percent of the vote in black neighborhoods, such as Cherry Hill, Rosemont, Clifton-Berea and Forest Park.

At the same time, Mrs. Clarke got significantly less than the 80 percent of the votes she needed in mostly white neighborhoods, such as Mount Washington, Roland Park and Tuscany-Canterbury.

Her overwhelming defeat in Tuesday's Democratic primary may well mark the end of a political era. Mrs. Clarke came out of the neighborhood activism of the 1960s and '70s, which opened doors for women but is now on the wane, said Matthew A.

Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University.

Comptroller candidate Julian L. Lapides, a veteran white legislator almost as well-known for building coalitions in black and white neighborhoods, also was defeated in the primary, by Joan M. Pratt, an African-American accountant.

"There clearly has been a decline of the type of coalition politics that represented a very strong element in Baltimore politics in the last 25 years," Mr. Crenson said.

Old-style populism

While an exceptionally large black voter turnout strengthened Mr. Schmoke's margin of victory, Mrs. Clarke also may have lost in part because her scrappy, populist campaign style no longer has the same appeal it once did, he said. Once liberal-to-moderate neighborhoods across the nation have grown increasingly conservative. And Mr. Schmoke campaigned on his record of fiscal management, touting that he kept the city's bond ratings high and reduced the size of government, as much as he made appeals to racial pride.

Mrs. Clarke hammered hard on the loss in jobs, low school achievement and rising crime since Mr. Schmoke took office, but she did not propose any radical departures in city government. Unlike white law-and-order mayoral candidates who prevailed in other big cities, such as Philadelphia and New York, Mrs. Clarke remained true to her progressive philosophies, saying she would hire more community police officers but avoiding any calls for sweeping crackdowns on crime.

She relied on traditional campaign tactics: daily canvassing in neighborhoods; targeted mailings from computer lists of likely voters; phone banks manned by volunteers compiling new lists of supporters. But Mr. Schmoke was able to mobilize far greater voter turnout than she did with hundreds of volunteers knocking on doors and driving in cars equipped with mobile phones to check on voters who still needed rides to the polls.

In her determined challenge to Mr. Schmoke, Mrs. Clarke put in 18-hour days and raised three-quarters of a million dollars by late August, more than she expected. She gained momentum in mid-August when a poll showed her within striking distance, and she picked up an unexpected endorsement from The Sun.

The mayor, who raised nearly twice as much as she did, spent a lot at the end with a final blitz touting his accomplishments in office in massive mailings of newspapers, trading cards, leaflets and glossy books. He also sought to undermine her credibility with television commercials that attacked her council proposal two years ago to tax drug dealers' profits -- which struck a nerve with many voters.

The perceived closeness of the mayor's race, which drew national attention, prompted an even greater turnout of black voters in a city where they already are the majority, said Nathan Irby, a retired state senator from East Baltimore who was elected to the council in 1975 with Mrs. Clarke. He had supported her in the past, but did not do so this year out of loyalty to Mr. Schmoke.

Pro-Schmoke, not anti-Clarke

"I think the bottom line is there was a soul-stirring feeling among African Americans for Kurt Schmoke," he said. "Mary Pat has always been a friend of the African-American community, but this was not an anti-Mary Pat vote, it was a pro-Kurt Schmoke vote."

After her hard defeat, Mrs. Clarke said she would finish out the council session and then leave politics to study religion. It brings to an end the years of committed constituent work, the frenetic rounds of neighborhood meetings, and the '70s style of grass-roots politicking that Mrs. Clarke personified.

"I believe people will miss Mary Pat's style," Mr. Irby confessed. "She has the kind of energy that Baltimore needs."

JoAnna Daemmrich is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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