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Schmoke faced hardship of city's decline FTC


TWELVE years ago this month, Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer sat in his office at City Hall, gazed pensively out the window and uttered words that still ring true.

The next mayor, said Mr. Schaefer, who'd been elected governor four weeks earlier, would have a tough time coping with Baltimore's sad decline.

The winner of the 1987 mayoral election faced an unhappy future, he predicted.

Kurt Schmoke turned out to be that unfortunate individual. He doesn't have Mr. Schaefer's forceful personality or knack for morale-boosting publicity stunts. He doesn't possess the Schaefer vision or managerial skills.

The city's slide slowed during Mr. Schaefer's 15 high-energy years. Baltimore's condition has worsened considerably in Mr. Schmoke's languid 11 years.

Are the schools better or worse than they were in the mid-1980s? Is the crime situation better? How about Baltimore's drug epidemic? Are businesses and industries flocking to Baltimore? Have neighborhoods been uplifted?

Even the crown jewel of the Schaefer years, the Inner Harbor, shows signs of wear and tear -- and commercial tackiness. There is no grand plan for pumping life and jobs into this city.

It has been 11 years of drift. Mr. Schmoke keeps shifting focus, spreading city resources too thin.

Look at the drug situation. He came into office advocating legalization of certain drugs. Now he has come around to the belief that more drug-treatment slots hold the key. Think what he could have accomplished by concentrating city resources into this approach for the past 11 years.

Lack of a plan

He's never gone to the state legislature and governor with a priority plan for the city. A major reform of Baltimore's schools had to be imposed on him by Annapolis.

County executives and business leaders complain they can't energize the mayor. They have substantive conversations and usually get the mayor's agreement by way of a "we'll work on it" or "someone will get back to you." It rarely happens.

Mr. Schmoke isn't a trained manager. Running a big bureaucracy isn't his strength. He has surrounded himself with pliant aides and mediocre administrators.

So the city drifts. That leaves the next mayor in a worse situation than Mr. Schmoke faced in 1987. Only a strong, determined leader with proven skills, such as former Rep. Kweisi Mfume or Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, may have a shot at stemming the city's decline. But it could be a crowded election field.

Names mentioned include council President Lawrence Bell, Comptroller Joan Pratt, Council member Helen Holton, school board member Carl Stokes, State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy and former council President Mary Pat Clarke. Heck, by next summer Mr. Schaefer may even jump in.

With so many candidates, the winner could need only 20 or 25 percent of the vote. It might be a politician with limited geographic or community appeal. The best-qualified candidates may not make it. But at least Mr. Schmoke has given politicians plenty of time to mull over what comes next. Instead of a last-minute rush to file, leaders can sit down and try to agree on a consensus choice.

Daily headaches

It is one of the most important and least rewarding jobs in America. Being mayor of an aging urban center means lots of daily headaches and heartbreaks.

How many anguishing funerals did Mr. Schmoke attend for deceased police officers or children killed in a street shootout? How many times has he had to tell citizens there isn't enough money or an easy answer to fix things?

A decade from now, the Schmoke years may look better. The city, after all, has not collapsed. Mr. Schmoke oversaw the transition of Baltimore to black-majority control without rancor or bitter racial tensions.

His winning smile and nice-guy demeanor has never faded. He displays an upbeat, positive image to the rest of the country. A start has been made, after 11 years, in some areas, such as housing and law enforcement. Relations with surrounding counties and the state are friendly.

Financial record

Mr. Schmoke has kept city finances in good shape. But he's failed to embark on a necessary downsizing to reflect the city's diminished population. Thus, the property-tax rate remains a major impediment to rejuvenation.

Twelve years is a long time on the hot seat. It is taking its toll. Mr. Schmoke's shoulders are rounded and slump forward. He has lost that spring in his step.

Baltimore finds itself at a crossroads. A new mayor will bring in new ideas and new people. Will it be another nice guy? A confrontational mayor? A bridge builder? A charismatic leader? A bumbler who makes us yearn for the Schmoke days? A tough city manager?

We've got nine months for voters to make up their minds. Baltimore could use some fresh approaches. Mr. Schmoke was right when he said yesterday it was time to move on.

Barry Rascovar, a deputy editorial page editor, is the author of "The Great Game of Maryland Politics."

Pub Date: 12/04/98

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