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Schmoke stopped leading city years ago


KURT L. SCHMOKE announced yesterday that he'll fold up his mattress and move out of Sleepy Hollow next year. His run as mayor of Baltimore ends after three terms; he will not seek a fourth. Some of us were surprised; we thought Schmoke had checked out years ago.

"If the mayor is going to run the Police Department, why do we need a police commissioner?" the mayor's spokesman said recently. Dan Henson took over housing policy and executed whatever controversial idea popped into his mind; the mayor came off the sidelines only to defend Henson against critics and federal investigators. Jay Brodie assumed command of economic development and, it seems, he presents exciting new plans for the city every week. The state took over management of the city schools; the mayor signed off months ago. George Balog runs public works as a fiefdom. What was left for the mayor? Recreation and parks?

He's a nice man, a good man, an honest and decent and intelligent man. We thank him for his efforts. He's a good guy. But as mayor, he couldn't hit the curve ball. "Schmoke" could be a verb for someone who does not live up to expectations. If Albert Belle hits 13 home runs next season at Camden Yards, we'll say he "schmoked."

Yesterday's announcement leaves us melancholy.

We supported Schmoke -- some of us longer than others -- because of the hope we saw, way back when, in his enthusiasm and in his resume.

What were the expectations? That he would lead Baltimore into a dynamic period of biracial politics that would slow the city's population decline. Here was a mayor, a parent, who cared about education; the city schools would get the attention they deserved after two decades of neglect. Schmoke recognized that Baltimore's renaissance had to reach beyond the Inner Harbor and into the poorer neighborhoods. And Schmoke appeared to be the kind of leader who could form alliances with suburban politicians and make them understand how the future of an entire region was tied to Baltimore's general health. He'd be great making the city's case in Annapolis.

Schmoke also had a nice, telegenic smile, but -- thank you, Lord -- he was no showboat. We didn't expect him to wear funny hats and turn every minor pronouncement into a publicity stunt, as had been the case with in the Schaefer years.

But at some point, it seemed Kurt Schmoke lost (or never had) the heart or the stomach for the job. His messages became muddled, his vision unclear.

Worst of all, his policies seemed to shrug with surrender: The city is getting smaller and poorer, and there's only so much we can do about that. Businesses are moving out of downtown, and what do we expect a mayor to do?

In 1993, instead of screaming about further cuts in state aid to Baltimore, Schmoke announced that library branches in his "City That Reads" would have to close. He also threatened to furlough teachers for a week and close city schools to save money. (His threats resulted in nothing; the closures did not happen and Schmoke convinced few in Annapolis that increased aid to the city was essential.)

Twice, after high-profile crimes, Schmoke suggested the city's piggy-back income tax be raised by a few percentage points to pay for additional police officers. It wasn't a bad idea; his proposal would have cost the average taxpayer an additional $18 a year. But Schmoke dropped the matter. Never mind.

The mayor seemed to be sitting on his hands as the city plodded along, middle-class population declined and the homicide rate went off the charts.

To be sure, good things happened while Schmoke was mayor and more good things are about to happen. If he didn't get credit for the good things, it was his own fault; the seriousness and modesty, while appealing to some of us after years of Schaefer antics, did not serve Schmoke well. He never learned how to use the symbolic tools of his office.

Example: Last year, a business executive dropped the idea of buying a $339,000 Otterbein home after he and his wife were robbed at gunpoint while strolling through Federal Hill. Three police officers told the couple they'd be better off buying a house in Baltimore County.

A mayor who understood his job would have tracked down that couple. He would have given them the facts -- they had stepped into a minor crime spree carried out by a handful of teen-agers -- and persuaded them to reconsider buying the house in Otterbein. Most important, the mayor would have let everyone know he was making that effort. It would have restored the faith of anyone who owns property and pays taxes in Baltimore.

Schmoke? Not a peep. An opportunity lost.

Accomplished veteran detectives have been resigning or retiring because of the police department's controversial rotation policy. Has the mayor intervened? Apparently not. Bethel A.M.E. Church, one of the city's largest congregations, needs a bigger facility. Has the mayor made finding one in the city a priority? No.

The last few years have been weird -- Schmoke trying to broker a deal for slot machines, backing a pro-gambling candidate's futile run for governor, throwing public millions at a politically-connected millionaire's hotel project suspected as a future site for a casino. Strange stuff.

The time was right for Kurt Schmoke to move on. He's relieved. So are many of us who came to believe, at some point, that he was mayor only because of the great "should" of his life. Kurt Schmoke "should" lead. Kurt Schmoke "should" be mayor. Kurt Schmoke "should" be the man to take Baltimore into the next century.

As a psychiatrist once told me, it's hard to live up to "should," and probably unwise to try.

Pub Date: 12/04/98

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