Mayor recalls tenure's highs, lows; THE SCHMOKE LEGACY


In an extensive retrospective on his career in City Hall, outgoing Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke lists his proudest accomplishments -- and most distressing disappointments.

Candid and analytical as always, Mr. Schmoke was almost as eager to volunteer verdicts on sub-par performance as he was to chronicle achievements.

The pluses he cited include a first-of-its-kind cyber-neighborhood in which new houses will be equipped with computers and access to the Internet; A little-known literacy program that empowers thousands of Baltimoreans and their families; and hundreds of housing units built by small contractors using the Community Reinvestment Act.

On the downside, Baltimore's mayor acknowledges he failed to come to grips soon enough with the crisis in the Baltimore schools.

Here is the first edited installment of a two-part interview conducted by Sun editorial writer C. Fraser Smith.

Sun: What are you most proud of?

Schmoke: Pleasant View Gardens. It's a major accomplishment that we were able to implode these high-rise public housing units and replace them with nice neighborhoods. No place else in the country have they been able to do that. A lot of people have knocked them down, but very few have planned with the community to rebuild something that's as nice and attractive.

And on the West Side, Lexington Terrace will be an electronic village. All the houses will be hooked up to the Internet and everyone will get training and a personal computer subsidized by the Housing Authority. It's our effort to provide decent housing and to address the digital divide (the technology gap between rich and poor). I've been talking to a national foundation about doing this for all the renovated public housing that's coming on line (in the nation).

Sun: What else goes on the accomplishment list?

Schmoke: I'm very proud of our literacy program headed by Maggi Gaines: Helping the functionally illiterate gain literacy skills and get better job skills. They've been laboring and doing an outstanding job, helping with storefront centers and raising money. That, I think, has contributed to improving the quality of life of a lot of families in Baltimore, people who were able to get better career opportunities as a result. There are thousands of them. You can't see them, but they're there.

Sun: Mayor-elect Martin O'Malley spoke during the recent campaign of the Community Reinvestment Act as if it had never been used in Baltimore. It has been used, hasn't it?

Schmoke: We just opened a batch of new houses on Covington Street on Federal Hill, $200,000 and $250,000 units built using the Community Reinvestment Act. This (quasi-governmental financing) group took risks the banks wouldn't. We've put up a range of housing for low- and moderate- and high-income people. We have hundreds of housing units that were developed through this financing corporation. It's a project we did early on and kept plugging away at. It's not high profile, but for small contractors it's how they stayed afloat during the recession.

(Without waiting for another question, Mr. Schmoke moved to the subject of his failures - what he knew and didn't know cominginto office and how that hurt him. )

Schmoke: My biggest failure is that I didn't have a well-thought-out plan for schools that I got everyone to buy into right away. We could have spent a decade working on it. That's what we needed. We went pillar to post on each new fad. The fad of the year or the month.

There are pockets of excellence in the schools, but there were pockets of excellence when I came in. The School for the Arts. City and Poly and the Dunbar Middle. All those things were there. And they remain among the best programs around. But I wouldn't say that excellence is the rule in our elementary and secondary schools in Baltimore. That for me is my biggest failure.

Sun: Is the city-state partnership on city schools promising at all?

Schmoke: Now, yes. For most of the time I was mayor, it was just trench warfare. There was a gotcha mentality. They were waiting for you to screw up and then punishing you. There were more punishments than rewards.

Sun: You've taken a lot of the responsibility.

Schmoke: It was our fault, too. When you're involved in litigation (over alleged inequities in school financing) you don't see the other guy's view. I thought (former Baltimore Mayor and then-Gov. William Donald) Schaefer and state schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick) didn't understand. They wanted to take over. And then one day a light bulb went off. ... The state people -- and it was absolutely reasonable -- were talking about outcomes: Show me your outcomes, they were saying.

Sun: When did you realize you were not speaking the same language?

Schmoke: Unfortunately, fairly late. Walter Amprey was the superintendent. It had to be 1996. It was the general assembly of '96 or '97. A hearing in the assembly. A joint hearing that (Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings and Sen. Barbara Hoffman) chaired. Legislators were there and we were supposed to show what steps had been taken in Baltimore. I had been assured we could show how successful we were. ...

There were 10 things we were supposed to have done and they assured me they had. I'm there supporting our folks against the assembly and against Nancy. She gets up and trashes the school system again. I'm waiting for our guys to just blow her out of the water. But what they presented were basically nine of the ten items where they were preparing to accomplish the goals but in none of them had they actually accomplished it. -- I was about to scrunch down in my seat. It got clear to me that we were speaking different languages.

Sun: Later, you floated the idea of a city-state public school partnership.

Schmoke: I got hammered, so I backed off. But the state and (Delegate Rawlings and Senator Hoffman) came in and said this is the right idea and it's going to happen. And damn the criticism. Even without the suit and the money this is what had to happen. If it works and they're able to stay together and implement the plan and our children start showing significant improvement throughout the system and not just in selected schools, I think that will be seen as a major accomplishment of this administration.

Sun: Moving back for a moment to accomplishments, what about management of the city's finances? This always seemed a strength of the Schmoke administration.

Schmoke: People keep asking me why we can't be more like Philadelphia. I say, wait a minute team. I balanced the budget 12 straight years. I never put the city in bankruptcy like Philadelphia. We didn't have a control board (like Washington, D.C.).

We lost population, but Philadelphia lost 179,000 people in eight years. Criticism comes from people looking at surface things and not underneath the image. There are some areas where I wish I had accomplished much more, but in others we've done a great deal.

Sun: But from a public relations standpoint, a political standpoint, why didn't you make more of your stewardship?

Schmoke: If I kept saying (former Mayor William Donald Schaefer) had a better situation, that just looked like whining. I knew it was a different context. There wasn't a need to say much because I wasn't going to change it.

Sun: What were the differences between Schaefer's City Hall and yours?

Schmoke: I've been trying to explain this to Martin (O'Malley). When people compare Schaefer-Schmoke there are two major differences that made my life different:

One, the end of the federal revenue sharing program. When (President Ronald) Reagan ended it, you could no longer count on X dollars coming in. Everything became competitive. There were still grants, but we had to compete with other cities and we got very good at it, but that was a huge difference. Life around here without it was very different. Schaefer had the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act money -- so much money and so many jobs. Your currency as an executive is jobs. You want to have political power throughout this town? You want to be able to give jobs. That strengthens you politically. When you can't hire people in the context of governing, that's a major difference.

Two, the state's maintenance of effort law in regard to school finance. For 15 years, Schaefer reduced the percentage of local dollars that went into schools. He was hustling for federal and state money but the percentage of local money went down. That gave him general funds, locally generated for projects. He did the projects and we have to compliment him, but it was a huge disinvestment in schools. By the time I got in, you could not decrease what you put in for schools. So, I want to put more in, but then I'm in jail. If I increased school spending, which I wanted to do, I was stuck. I could never cut back. That's the new standard. You can keep going up but you can't cut. I didn't have the discretion he had.

This stuff is dry as dust, but they are two important issues in terms of flexibility.

Sun: Given the city's chronic lack of money, you were pushed to try for dramatic new ways to solve the problem. How important was your support for slot machines in your decision to oppose Gov. Parris N. Glendening and to back former Harford County Executive Eileen Rehrmann in the last Democratic gubernatorial primary?

Schmoke: Very important and, as it ended up, it was probably a series of miscommunications that led to a not-very-wise political decision. I thought Eileen was going to make slots a central issue in her campaign.

As I looked at Baltimore's situation and felt we needed a new revenue source and it could not be the income tax or property tax, I thought this was the only option we had in the next five or 10 years to increase funds for discretionary projects. So, for me, it was a very big issue.

Parris and I had our dispute over slots, which putting it in its kindest light, may have been a misunderstanding -- just a misunderstanding that led to harder feelings down the road. It brought about a separation in our alliance. I became more and more convinced of the importance of slots. I thought Ms. Rehrmann would make slots a central issue. But two weeks after I endorsed her, slots dropped off her agenda. It left me with a person who did a nice job in Harford County--against an incumbent governor who had earned the support of city voters.

Sun: Suspicion of gambling hurt you in your effort to get a new hotel, didn't it?

Schmoke: Absolutely. There was a great deal of concern and legitimate concern. I still believe that slots at the racetrack made sense for this community. But with the hotel, there was heavy skepticism that this was the camel's nose under the tent. We're still losing tons of money to West Virginia and Delaware. It's not as though the governor was stopping people from engaging in that activity.

Sun: The governor also could run on his appointment of Judge Robert Bell as chief judge of the Court of Appeals.

Schmoke: Absolutely. That appointment was not something he wanted to do, but he did it. Given the grants he made to the city, it was hard to make the argument that he shouldn't be elected--particularly when there was not the big slots issue--the defining issue. I remember sitting with Kathleen (Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend) in my conference room. I was saying, How else are you going to help us? He promised he was going to take over the courts. He didn't do it. Tell me you're going to take the courts or fund the state's attorney -- something. Give me some fiscal relief. These things were among his original promises. He kept saying all the promises were kept. That's just not true.

Sun: So, what's on your list of recommendations to Mr. O'Malley?

Schmoke: One, it starts with the family. It is so important particularly for a guy like O'Malley with little children -- to really figure out with your wife how you are going to deal with the demands of the job. Dinner? You might be able to build that into your schedule once a week. My family finally rebelled. We scheduled Wednesday. My schedule stops at 6 on that day. I didn't have that before 1995. Schaefer created an expectation that you be there, everywhere, all the time. You get criticized for not being there all the time. This job is such that ... there are things you can work on 24 hours a day. You could just keep working. You could contact mayors around the world. Get new ideas. But you have to work on the family because if things aren't going well at home, it impacts on what you do here.

Two, the word "mayor" is a verb.

Three, try hard to have a positive relationship with the president of the council. He has an opportunity with (council president-elect) Sheila Dixon . --

Four, budget is policy. You have to learn the ins and outs of the budget. It may seem dry as dust but if you can't understand you can make a major mistake -- like former mayor Wilson Goode in Philadelphia. Mayor D'Alesandro said, "See this book? You have to learn it. You have to be able to ask the right questions."

Five, be careful with police-community affairs -- particularly the Larry Hubbard matter (the shooting of a man while he was being arrested by city police that is now under multiple investigations). I have a sense, too, that although I have tried to get it resolved, the Hubbard case won't be resolved. How that works out could have a big impact on his first months as mayor.

That one has to be handled with care.

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