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Looking for a leader for post-Schmoke era


WITH MAYOR Kurt L. Schmoke's recent announcement that he won't seek re-election, I've found myself reflecting on a Thanksgiving Day dinner I enjoyed with a group of fellow black baby boomers, many of whom were dedicated Schmoke supporters at one time.

It was a conversation colored by disillusionment with the leadership of the city. They asked: What went wrong with the civil rights movement of our youth?

In the blocks around the lovely home in Madison Park North in West Baltimore, harried drug addicts scurry through the darkness and area residents, who are defending their middle-class enclave, wonder whose car will be broken into next. Drug-addicted prostitutes haunt the neighborhood, offering their skeletal bodies at bargain-basement prices.

My hosts that night are tired of the urban ills that never seem to abate despite their neighborhood's inclusion in a benefits district that provides some services like street cleaning.

They and others at the dinner eagerly voted for Mr. Schmoke in 1987 because he represented the culmination of their belief in all the middle-class values promoted by the civil rights movement. He was supposed to bring a new day. My dinner companions have stopped waiting for that day to arrive. Some of them have moved to the suburbs and others hold on with failing dedication to Baltimore.

Open-air drug market

One resident of the 1900 block of Madison Ave. tells a tale of scores of junkies lining up in the alley behind her house to purchase illegal drugs during daylight hours. As frightening as this tale would be to the average person, it was more striking to me because I attended a community meeting on that very issue several years ago at a church in that block. The police major who met with community residents then was a little too smug, but I was merely an observer so I kept my indignation under wraps.

The major blithely explained how there wasn't much the police could do about a platoon of junkies taking over the alley. Ten years later, that alley is still a teeming drug market.

My joy at gathering with friends on Thanksgiving Day was tempered by the hopelessness I heard in many of their voices. They are people who are successful by any of the usual measurements of jobs, home ownership and strong family ties.

Though they are at their peaks on the career ladder, they feel rather impotent politically. They could not have predicted this outcome in 1987, when they were elated over Mr. Schmoke's election. After all, the Yale and Harvard man was the first elected black mayor of Baltimore.

One of the most contentious topics at the table that night concerned economic empowerment. When Mr. Schmoke was initially elected, they had thought that many more city contracts would go to black-owned businesses, bringing more prosperity to the black community.

My friends at the dinner, like many others, thought that political power would automatically translate into economic power. But that only happens if there is political leadership willing to seize power, and there are business people willing to finance independent politicians who will work in the interests of the African-American community.

Mr. Schmoke was not the one for that job, and the black majority on the City Council has not taken an aggressive position on economic empowerment.

As I sat at the table and listened to the disappointment and anger, I wondered how many similar conversations were taking place that night throughout the city.

Some 1,000 Baltimore residents leave the city each month -- most go to the surrounding counties. Before next Thanksgiving Day, my hosts will join the exodus, moving to Sparks in Baltimore County. A woman who sat next to me at dinner confided that she wants to leave the city, but her spouse wants to stay. Those around the table who have school-age children had beat a path to the suburbs years ago.

In 1987, all had supported a mayor who had said education would be a priority. The City that Reads, et al.

Sadly, my dinner companions don't feel much hope is left for the city. Ironically, they are people who previously had been unfailingly optimistic. For many of them, their interest in politics dates to the '60s. They were among supporters of Joe Howard, the first black to win a judgeship on the forerunner to Baltimore Circuit Court, showing that blacks could win in citywide elections.

As the long mayoral campaign begins, this is the critical question: Can Baltimore retain its remaining black baby-boomer nTC middle class? If they continue to leave in droves, what hope is there for the city?

The bedrock of elderly black voters is dying off. There is a thin layer of consistent voters behind them. Beyond that is a large group of youngsters who are disengaged from the political process.

What candidate in 1999 can reach across generational boundaries? More importantly, what candidate will be able to impart hope to city residents?

Close to home

The people around that Thanksgiving table wanted to stay in the city near familiar landmarks like their churches and childhood neighborhoods, but they see no hope that the city can be turned around.

Once they placed their hope in Mr. Schmoke, but that hope was misplaced. My dinner companions did not express a similar kind of hope about anyone who might consider running for mayor aside from the incumbent.

It's important that the city retain my friends and others like them -- the skilled group with filial, cultural and political ties to the black underclass that swells angrily in Baltimore.

R. B. Jones, a poet and teacher, is a part-time communications adviser to City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III.

Pub Date: 12/14/98

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