Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said out loud yesterday what has long been the parlor gossip of Baltimore politics: He'll make a bid for the U.S. Senate three years from now if Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes decides not to seek a fifth term.
"I want to keep my options open," the mayor said in an interview. "If for any reason Senator Sarbanes doesn't want to run, I've told many people I'd be interested in running."
Although his allies and associates expect him to seek a fourth mayoral term in 1999, Schmoke said he wanted to concentrate on the pending overhaul of city schools before making a formal political announcement.
"That's my priority," he said of the school restructuring recently approved by the General Assembly.
"After that, I can focus on election plans."
One symbol of his desire for what he calls "a sense of a new start politically" is the new name of his campaign committee: "Kurt Schmoke 2000."
Schmoke, 47, has dominated Baltimore politics for a decade, and his departure from City Hall would sharply alter the electoral landscape.
The notion that he might not serve out -- or possibly even seek -- another term already has an array of aspirants quietly assessing their options.
This is not the first time Schmoke has considered giving up the mayoralty.
Four years ago, he seriously thought of making a run for governor in 1994. He also has been the subject of widespread, periodic speculation that he might be in line for a high-ranking post in the Clinton administration, but he was never offered a position.
Until yesterday, however, he has publicly brushed off speculation over his interest in succeeding Sarbanes.
What he does in the next three years depends not just on his own desires but also on Sarbanes.
The low-key and erudite 64-year-old Democrat has often been rumored to be leaving the Senate, but he has shown what many regard as renewed vigor and visibility in recent months.
"Here we go again," said Jesse L. Jacobs, Sarbanes' spokesman. "Our policy is that we're not going to comment on political speculation, on whether the senator will run or not again, be appointed to a federal judgeship or to the Supreme Court."
But whatever Sarbanes does, it is clear that Schmoke, the Ivy League-educated Rhodes scholar who became Baltimore's first elected black mayor in 1987, is nearing a crossroads.
He has expressed a sense of pride in such accomplishments as the rebuilding of decrepit public housing high-rises and the expanded development of the Inner Harbor. But he has faced a continual struggle with problems caused by a more impoverished population and a diminished tax base.
"It would be great for him to be mayor at the beginning of the millennium," said state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat and political ally. "It's time for him to move on. He's made his mark."
Larry S. Gibson, the mayor's chief political strategist, said he had not yet decided whether "Kurt Schmoke 2000" would be a new name -- or a brand new committee. Gibson said only that it would be a state political committee; if Schmoke were to run for Senate, he would have to create a federal one.
"We're not excluding any possibilities at this point," Gibson said.
However, Gibson, too, was open about the possibility of Schmoke's senatorial ambitions.
"He's made no bones about his desire ultimately to serve in the U.S. Senate," he said.
If he were to run, Schmoke would hardly be a shoo-in even for the Democratic nomination, burdened as he might be by his public stance in favor of drug decriminalization and the growing antipathy toward Baltimore in the populous Washington suburbs.
Harry R. Hughes, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party and former governor, noted that there are at least two county executives with political ambitions: Montgomery County's Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore County's C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.
"They all can't be governor," Hughes said. "There are a limited number of seats. One is the U.S. Senate."
There also are a number of formidable Republican challengers. Notable among them is U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County, who has talked openly about a Senate run and said yesterday, "If you're in public office and you're looking at other public offices, it's always a good idea to keep your options open."
The difficulty of a Senate race and the uncertainty over Sarbanes' plans makes most of those who know Schmoke almost certain that he will seek re-election in 1999. That would allow him to run for Senate as a sitting mayor, should Sarbanes retire.
If he does run for a fourth term, it is questionable whether City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, who holds the second-highest office in the city and has mayoral ambitions, would challenge him. Instead, Bell most likely would run for a second term.
Yesterday, Bell would not be drawn into the discussion. "I just can't comment on what I'm going to do. I just don't know," he said.
Since the two men have been at odds on such key issues as crime and schools, Schmoke almost certainly would back a challenger to Bell. Who wins the council presidency in 1999 would be particularly important if Schmoke ran and won for Senate a year later, since the council president would fill a mayoral vacancy.
Among the names that have been mentioned to run as the mayor's candidate for council president are McFadden, City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and 4th District Councilwoman Sheila Dixon.
If Schmoke decided not to run, the 1999 mayoral campaign would open up in a way it hasn't since 1971, when William Donald Schaefer won a four-way race.
Daniel P. Henson III, the city's controversial housing chief and a Schmoke confidant, is considered one potential candidate.
But Henson said yesterday he fully expects the mayor to seek re-election in 1999, adding, "I'm the housing commissioner. I have the best job in the city."
Bell would be likely to run.
Another politician whose name has been mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate is Comptroller Joan M. Pratt.
A Schmoke departure "would make it wide open," Hughes said. "There's no heir apparent I could think of."
Pub Date: 4/18/97