It was only moments after Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced that he was going to pack up and leave City Hall next year, and already Lawrence A. Bell III, City Council president and perhaps heir to the city's throne, was holding court under the television lights.
Reporters were goading Bell, trying unsuccessfully to get him to say he would run.
"What's going on?" asked a maintenance worker stringing cables through the ceiling inches away from Bell and the TV crews.
"The mayor's leaving," his partner informed him.
"Uh-oh." As he spoke, his jaw dropped.
Rare is the day that the courtly, contemplative mayor with the Harvard and Yale degrees causes jaws to drop. But yesterday was one of those days.
As the mayor's news spread like a brush fire, denizens of City Hall spent yesterday in tears, in shock or in huddles hatching plans to take over the mayor's post.
Schmoke, the usually aloof mayor, was miles away, being mayoral with more animation than anyone had seen in a long time. Outside a renovated shopping center in Cherry Hill where he was dedicating a library, Schmoke had turned into a man many of his constituents had rarely seen other than on election night.
He was warm, approachable and jubilant. The handshakes were firmer, the laugh bordering on a guffaw. The smile was wider. He looked like a man who had had the weight of a city lifted off his back.
"The decision was made a while ago," he said yesterday as a crush of reporters and supporters closed in on him. "I've been carrying the announcement around."
It was good to get it over with, he said.
In Cherry Hill, Schmoke stepped out of his green Ford Expedition to a wall of well-wishers. In the few feet between the car door and the shopping center's entrance, there were no fewer than five lingering hugs from well-wishers.
"Pleeeeeease don't go," they pleaded.
Since he won the city's top job in 1987, one of the recurring criticisms of Schmoke has been that he doesn't excite or inspire Baltimoreans. He was too calm, too measured, never really angry or excited. Where was the passion in this man?
Much of that criticism came from those who had lived through and reveled in the stormy years when William Donald Schaefer, who was anything but measured, was mayor.
It was the day the mayor decided he had had enough that he cut loose.
"It was good to see him this way," said neighborhood activist Alethea Hughes, a Cherry Hill resident for 50 years. "His greeting was enthusiastic. There was more expression in his voice, more feeling."
"There is a sense of relief, and there is a sense of sadness here," said Corrine Lawson, a Pimlico resident who voted for the mayor in 1987 and 1991 but switched to Mary Pat Clarke in 1995. "It is an end of an era, but all things have to come to an end. And, in my opinion, that was around 1993 as far as Schmoke is concerned."
Though she has cheered and jeered him, Lawson said, she is glad to see the mayor move on. "I didn't want to see him die in office," she said.
His family was ready to have Schmoke return to his role as family man, especially his wife, said the mayor's longtime press secretary, Clinton R. Coleman.
Schmoke said yesterday at a news conference that family concerns were at the center of his decision not to run again. He apparently had been planning his move since his 1995 landslide re-election. It was over Thanksgiving, when relatives were in town, that he made the final decision to call it quits.
His daughter, Kathy, was particularly happy that her father would be concentrating more on family and less on the city's affairs.
Coleman said that when Schmoke confirmed yesterday morning that he would not seek re-election, he was jubilant until he recounted his daughter's reaction to the news.
"He became as emotional as I've ever seen him when he talked about the sense of relief his daughter showed," Coleman said.
Around City Hall, those who built their careers on criticizing Schmoke had little bad to say about the mayor yesterday. Even Bell, sometimes his rival, offered praise of sorts.
"It has been a tough job," Bell said. "I respect the mayor for hanging in there."
Pub Date: 12/04/98