His grade is C+ after 12 years; Mixed results: Sound fiscal practices, Inner Harbor boom counter quality-of-life, staff weaknesses during his tenure.; THE SCHMOKE LEGACY


IF A GRADE were given for Kurt L. Schmoke's 12-year tenure as mayor, it would be a C+.

Mr. Schmoke can take pride in several real achievements:

He razed crime-ridden public housing high-rises that surrounded the central business district. New mixed-income communities of homeowners and renters will eventually replace them. Similar new townhouse communities will sprout at demolition sites in the nation's other big cities. But federal officials cite Baltimore, along with Atlanta, as having done the best job.

Minority participation became institutionalized, giving African-American contractors, architects and engineers unprecedented access to city business. This breakthrough was particularly important because minority procurement is not often encouraged in the private sector.

While mismanagement and recession drove Philadelphia into bankruptcy, Mr. Schmoke kept Baltimore's finances sound and its all-important bond rate intact without drastic cuts in public services. He managed this feat, even though he had to write off some $50 million in defaulted loans to a private bank created by William Donald Schaefer. It would have been easy for Mr. Schmoke to make a political issue of this and blame his predecessor; he never chose to do so.

The Inner Harbor continued to thrive on his watch. Successful new attractions, such as the Power Plant retail and entertainment complex, were opened at locations where previous mayors' revitalization efforts failed.

The Schmoke administration, though, was unable to stop physical deterioration in areas beyond the Inner Harbor.

Sandtown-Winchester is a case in point.

More than $70 million in public and private investment has been spent there over the past nine years. Yet a partnership among City Hall, nonprofit organizations and the private sector has failed to regenerate the forsaken West Baltimore neighborhood. Hundreds of housing units have been completed and more are being built. Health and social services have been stepped up and efforts have been made to improve schools. Still, relentless decay erodes surrounding residential areas, leading to further abandonment.

Mr. Schmoke cared about a neighborhood that nobody else cared about, in the assessment of a Sandtown activist, who was asked for a silver lining.

Overall, the Schmoke administration proved incapable of revising many sagging quality-of- life indices:

Schools, which had been neglected under previous mayors, became so unmanageable that the state stepped in to reform them.

A crack epidemic hit Baltimore with a ferocity that has left one out of every eight adults is addicted to drugs. Violence associated with drug trafficking spilled into neighborhoods. Since 1990, not a single year has ended with fewer than 300 homicides.

A residential renaissance started in Canton and continued in Fells Point and Federal Hill. But other neighborhoods deteriorated as flight to the suburbs created 40,000 vacant houses. When the middle-class fled, so did corporations and jobs.

Baltimore's designation as one of the nation's six empowerment cities was just one example of how Mayor Schmoke benefited from his personal friendship with President Clinton. Five years later, the program has a mixed record of success and has produced no economic breakthrough for target communities.

Contradictions in record

The Schmoke administration's overall record is full of contradictions. Just like the mayor himself.

In his first inaugural address, the new mayor promised an energetic, aggressive administration, one that wouldn't be anchored behind its desk, that wouldn't wring its hands but roll up its sleeves.

One of his predecessors, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, had urged him to recognize that the word "mayor" is a verb. By this he meant a mayor must be out and about putting his face on every city project -- showing concern for every neighborhood, for every block with a vacant, "nuisance" house, for every bullet-wounded child. Mr. Schmoke did all of these things, but his image as a man of abstract --- hands-off -- leadership was imprinted on the public consciousness.

Instead of dynamism, his management was reactive, haphazard and slow-moving. Far too often, it lacked coordination or purpose. Since the mayor himself is not an assertive person, meetings were held and strategies discussed, but notes were seldom taken, assignments seldom made or follow-through secured. Participants would be puzzled and uncertain about what, if anything, had been decided.

This became a persistent problem throughout the three terms. It was particularly pronounced in the first six years, when the administration was slowed down by a disastrously weak housing commissioner (Robert W. Hearn), an insubordinate school superintendent (Richard C. Hunter), a caretaker police commissioner (Edward V. Woods) and a miscast economic development chief (Honora Freeman).

Despite mounting evidence that things were not working, the mayor stuck with his poor choices. Violent crime spiraled, confidence in public schools evaporated, blight spread and Baltimore missed its chance to take advantage of an investment boom that transformed the fortunes of New York, Philadelphia, Boston -- and even Detroit and Cleveland.

As if demoralized and discouraged by the immense task before him, he once invited the Agency for International Development to apply some of its Third World techniques in Baltimore -- a public relations disaster, not the sort of invitation one might expect from a man who promised to make "a great city greater."

Mr. Schmoke saw the problems. But firing cabinet members was painful to him.

In 1993, when he finally removed Mr. Hearn, the former Johns Hopkins University urban affairs professor was not terminated but simply shifted to another well-paying City Hall job.

The mayor also twiddled his thumbs in deciding the fate of Dr. Hunter, an education professor he had hired from the University of North Carolina. When the loose-cannon school superintendent was finally let go, he lingered on for another seven months while an outside trouble-shooter ran the school system.

What happened next underscored Mr. Schmoke's tendency to equivocate.

Community panels favored former state school Superintendent David Hornbeck, whom the mayor himself had urged to become a candidate. But after a group of African-American clergymen insisted that the job go to a black educator, Mr. Schmoke, facing re-election, abandoned his choice and picked Walter G. Amprey. Two also-runs were appointed his top assistants in an bizarre power-sharing arrangement that never worked.

If Dr. Hunter was a doctrinaire academic, Dr. Amprey was a whirlwind experimentalist. He took chances, welcomed all kinds of new ideas. Some were good; many others were not. All that frantic activity masked a fatal flaw: Dr. Amprey was a terrible administrator. Finally, a federal judge, legislators and state regulators grew tired of the mess. They decided the city was incapable of running its schools.

Reality hits

The reality hit Mr. Schmoke during a hearing in Annapolis. Having heard his school administrators' glowing progress reports, he went to the hearing believing his officials would demolish any criticism. But when their turn came, city school administrators were still talking about goals and could not point to achievements. The mayor realized he had been duped. "I was about to scrunch down in my seat," Mr. Schmoke remembers.

This happened after Mr. Schmoke had been mayor for a decade. It points to his biggest failure: He never gained control over the bureaucracy. And because he lacked a system of follow-through, he could not be assured that his commands were carried out.

Mr. Schmoke gave his department heads a great deal of leeway. Sometimes it paid off; sometimes not.

Here's a rundown on Mayor Schmoke's key administrators:

Public works czar George G. Balog, a can-do executive who could squeeze millions for re-election campaigns, became so indispensable some thought he was really the city manager, a position the administration did not formally have. In return, Mr. Balog, who retained his post for 12 years, kept expanding his empire. In the end he controlled 35 percent of the city 16,000 full-time jobs -- everything from sanitation workers and road pavers to park employees and traffic ticket issuers.

Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III was another sovereign. He staged a spectacular -- if messy -- turnaround in the chaotic bureaucracies he inherited. Improvement was particularly evident in the city's public housing operations. He ended up in plenty of controversy because he ignored time-consuming processes, including competitive bidding. He also launched large-scale demolition of vacant properties. Thousands of derelict rowhouses were razed. But because he operated without an overall plan, his middle-of-the-block demolitions devastated many neighborhoods.

Dr. Peter Beilenson seemed an odd choice for health commissioner, when he was appointed in 1992. Bright but abrasive, he ran unsuccessfully for the City Council as an administration critic. He brought innovation to the way the city dealt with public health ills ranging from tuberculosis and syphilis epidemics to teen-age pregnancy. Among Dr. Beilenson's controversial initiatives was introduction of Norplant kits to sexually active teen-age girls. He also began a needle exchange program to curb AIDS among intravenous drug users. The latter was a conceptual companion to Mr. Schmoke's call for decriminalizating narcotics.

While the mayor made his call for new thinking early in his administration, it took him a decade to follow it with substantial money for drug treatment. By the end of Mr. Schmoke's tenure, Baltimore had developed one of the nation's biggest municipal drug treatment programs but was still trying to optimize its effectiveness.

It took political courage for Mr. Schmoke, in 1994, to appoint Thomas C. Frazier, a white Californian, to overhaul the city's troubled and demoralized Police Department. Even though Mr. Frazier, a headstrong man, frequently became embroiled in controversies, the mayor never undercut his top cop.

Mr. Frazier purchased state-of-the-art equipment, introduced new policing methods and command structure. In an effort to promote minority advancement, he initiated a widely criticized rotation policy within specialized police units. Mr. Frazier reduced many categories of non-violent crimes but failed to eradicate open-air drug markets or curb the high homicide rate. He was roundly criticized by a number of politicians, above all Councilman Martin J. O'Malley.

Always in the background was Larry S. Gibson, a University of Maryland law professor, and the mayor's campaign manager. On political matters, Mr. Schmoke always deferred to him. Many critics saw Mr. Gibson's hand in administrative decisions as well. It was said he reviewed all sensitive contracts before they were approved.

An unconventional politician

In his loyalty to figures such as Mr. Gibson and in other ways as well, Kurt Schmoke's conduct was often unconventional. This confused and frustrated those who expected him to behave like an ordinary politician. He was always on time for his public appearances but his political timing could be badly off. He could be disarmingly frank in assessing his performance. And he was personally honest.

Unlike William Donald Schaefer -- a "messiah mayor" who had developed being overbearing into an art and negotiating tool -- Mr. Schmoke set strict limits to what was proper for him. He avoided cheap publicity, which meant he failed to take credit for some solid achievements.

And while Mr. Schaefer would rant and rave in public and private at those he felt had double-crossed him -- either by moving out of town or not being on his team --Mr. Schmoke seemed to accept things placidly. When a leading law firm or a major utility announced it would move its headquarters out of the city, he thought it was beneath his dignity to plead or bargain or threaten revenge.

Such phlegmatic behavior contributed to an impression the mayor lacked passion for his city and its future.

Yet Mr. Schmoke invested himself publicly and unstintingly in the public school system -- not a claim Mr. Schaefer could make. He tore down hideous monuments to failed federal housing policies and, unlike many more conventional politicians, sacrified himself on the altar ofideas. Even after Baltimoreans had become critical of his performance, he continued to dazzle out-of-towners.

TUESDAY: Lessons for the next mayor.

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