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Can a mayor of no style really project 'new' one?


Those of us remaining in the city of Baltimore are examining the latest medical alert from the psyche of Kurt L. Schmoke today, and wondering what it means. The old mayor says there's a new mayor in town. Same name, same guy, different packaging.

"I'm trying to change my style," Schmoke told The Sun's JoAnna Daemmrich. "It's hard to say why, but it's just clear that I wasn't coming across as effectively as I thought."

The old style was to have no style. We will resist all urges to point out the legions of advisers, analysts, community leaders and business people who have spent the past eight years telling this guy, "When are you gonna start being mayor? You've got to let people know you're alive," and simply wonder, what does he mean, at long last, by change?

Is it a change of style just for the sake of style, or has there been a genuine awakening in this man who, for all his earnestness and (until the recent campaign unpleasantness) likability, has presided over the crumbling of his city?

In recent days, we're told, this "new" mayor has nimbly approached corporate leaders to explain various nuances of the city's empowerment zone. But these are some of the same corporate leaders so infuriated by Schmoke's sleepy approach to business, and his unnecessary battles over the Convention Center, that many are now saying openly that they no longer think seriously when it comes to this city.

Then we're told that the "new" mayor wants to reinvent his administration -- but he intends to hold onto some of the most controversial and criticized members of it. Late last week, the state of Maryland issued 11 pages of blistering criticism of Dr. Walter Amprey, saying that his city schools need "substantial, immediate restructuring."

This is not news to anyone -- except, perhaps, the "old" mayor of Baltimore, who deflected all criticism of Amprey during the last campaign and publicly continues to stand by the school superintendent.

A week ago, the "new" mayor went to Washington. Never mind that it was Louis Farrakhan inviting everybody; this wasn't about Farrakhan, we're assured. It was about black men invigorating themselves. A day of atonement, it was called.

So let's talk atonement. In the city of Baltimore, poor black people are engaged in various acts of killing. They're doing this with guns and knives and needles, and they're doing it by routinely abandoning their families.

In eight years, has anyone seen this mayor stand in some public place and declare that this cannot go on? Being mayor means more than having the sensibilities of an accountant. It means displaying moral leadership in highly visible ways.

Speaking of which: In the last, deflating mayoral campaign, guided by Larry Gibson with off-stage ad libs by Daniel Henson, the city was willfully polarized by race. The day after the election, Schmoke talked about this -- from both sides of his mouth.

From one side, he talked of a fresh start. From the other, he pointedly declared his intention to hold onto the malevolent Henson and Gibson. From one side, he talked of healing racial divisions. From the other, he said white people needed to learn to share political power.

Political power? This isn't about political power, it's about the leader of a racially mixed city helping his citizens learn to get along with each other in the places where they live and work. We've had a black mayor for nine years now. We have a majority-black City Council. Both of these facts are fine -- as long as those with the power wield it without regard to color.

So what does this "new" mayor do for an encore? He backs Sheila Dixon for vice president of the City Council. Remember her? During those edgy days when council members were redrawing district lines -- and both blacks and whites showed little racial conciliation -- Dixon was the one who took off her shoe and shrieked, "The shoe's on the other foot now."

Is this sort of behavior acceptable to our "new" mayor? Who knows? We're still trying to figure out the old mayor, who spent eight years in his room while the city was shuddering. He lived off the strength of his early promise, and people's hopes. Then came last summer. Now, those of us remaining in this city are checking the latest psychological bulletins and wondering what they really mean.

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