Promising an aggressive finish to his three terms as Baltimore's 46th mayor, an upbeat and visibly relieved Kurt L. Schmoke announced his impending departure yesterday from the job he has held for more than a decade.
In explaining the stunning decision not to pursue a fourth term, the popular, cerebral mayor said he had talked with his family and friends during the Thanksgiving holiday, and decided that a new leader should carry the city into the next century and millennium.
"Right now, my gut tells me it's the right time," Schmoke said, sitting next to a longtime friend and supporter, City Council Vice President Agnes B. Welch, during a City Hall news conference.
"We certainly look forward to working hard the next 12 months. I am a lame duck but not a dead duck."
Schmoke said he did not plan to seek any other political office -- elected or appointed -- except perhaps a seat in the U.S. Senate.
After his mayoral term ends Dec. 7, 1999, Schmoke said, he plans to pursue jobs in the private sector, which might include working for a nonprofit organization, becoming a lobbyist on Capitol Hill or returning to the practice of law.
Even as potential candidates line up -- most notably NAACP President Kweisi Mfume -- Schmoke described the 1999 election as historic, calling it "a referendum on the future."
Political analysts say the mayor's job is one of the most coveted in Maryland politics because the city's form of government gives the mayor wide-ranging powers.
"The mayor is so powerful a figure in Baltimore that if you're decent, you can really establish a personal stamp on the city," said Herbert C. Smith, a Western Maryland College political science professor.
Based on assessments from many city employees yesterday, Schmoke clearly has left an impression. Waves of ovations for his service greeted the mayor as he announced his departure to his staff and other city workers in meetings early yesterday.
Schmoke had told some city and state officials of his decision Wednesday, but many still took yesterday's announcement as a bittersweet pill.
"We were happy for him," said George G. Balog, director of the Department of Public Works. "But I think everybody knew that an era was ending."
Cause for tears
Schmoke staff member Kevin S. O'Keeffe choked back tears. The city lobbyist in Annapolis pulled out a letter he had written to Schmoke 16 years ago.
O'Keeffe was an 18-year-old Loyola High School student who had volunteered to serve on Schmoke's first political campaign, for Baltimore state's attorney.
Since then, O'Keeffe has remained with the mayor while working his way through Georgetown Law School. Earlier in the week, O'Keeffe presented a scrapbook to Schmoke depicting the mayor's years of public service.
"He was a role model for many of us here," O'Keeffe said, wiping away the tears. "You couldn't work for a nicer man."
Schmoke, who turned 49 this week, was one of the nation's first African-American politicians elected outside the civil rights struggle.
A Yale graduate, who went on to be a Rhodes scholar at London's Oxford University and to earn a law degree from Harvard, Schmoke was billed as the new breed of mayor.
Many saw him, a former assistant U.S. attorney and city state's attorney, becoming a vice presidential or even presidential candidate.
The White House said Wednesday that officials there would like to talk with Schmoke about a position with the Clinton-Gore administration, if he was interested.
Fallout from 1988 remarks
But the mayor downplayed that option yesterday, saying he thought he would be a liability to the president because he announced his support in 1988 for the "decriminalization of drugs."
Schmoke said he thought his position on drugs would make it impossible to win confirmation for an appointed position.
In a prepared statement yesterday, President Clinton praised Schmoke for his work but never mentioned appointing the mayor to a post in his administration.
"Since becoming president in 1993, it has been my good fortune to work very closely with Mayor Kurt Schmoke on issues about which the residents of Baltimore and our nation care," Clinton said in the statement.
"He has been a wonderful partner in our efforts to improve the quality of education for all children, increase the availability of health care and housing, enhance economic development in our inner cities and revitalize our neighborhoods," he said.
"I am grateful to the mayor for his public service to Baltimore and our nation, and I look forward to making the most use of every day remaining in his current term of office to continue our work together."
Gov. Parris N. Glendening, whose strained relationship with the mayor stopped him from commenting Wednesday night on Schmoke's planned departure, broke his silence yesterday.
"I wish him well," Glendening said in a prepared statement. "I can certainly understand how demanding public service can be, and I hope that in the future he will be able to spend more time with his family.
"Baltimore is a strong city with a great future, and I look forward to working with the future leadership there to make it an even stronger city."
Some city residents welcomed Schmoke's announcement yesterday, saying it is time for a change in Baltimore's top elected position. Katherine Ducket, 73, of East Baltimore spoke of the mayor as if he were a family member.
"He's just tired," Ducket said. "And if he's tired, he should get a rest."
Paul Platt of downtown Baltimore agreed. The 72-year-old Lombard Street resident -- who lives blocks from Camden Yards -- said he sees downtown expanding, activity that could be spurred by the election of a new mayor.
"He's making a good move getting out," Platt said. "And I hope we get a good mayor because the city has a chance to grow."
Though, to Schmoke's chagrin, much of the day played out as an obituary for his career, he insisted that he still plans to move forward with several projects, including the completion of a master plan for development in the city.
"I intend to serve until the term is over in December of 1999 and to have a very aggressive year of policy development and implementation, working with the City Council and the legislature and our citizens," Schmoke said.
His efforts in the next year may help shape Schmoke's legacy for Baltimoreans and Marylanders.
Proud of accomplishments
Despite his popularity -- a 57 percent approval rating from city residents in a recent poll -- the city remains saddled with troubled schools, high crime, deteriorating neighborhoods and half of the state's poor.
Schmoke said he realizes he cannot fix it all, but he is proud of his accomplishments.
"There really are no final victories new challenges always arise," he said. "So there will always be new challenges for our city and community, but the bottom line is that there will be a new mayor for a new century."
Pub Date: 12/04/98