For many who live in Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke may be the closest thing to a genuine hometown hero they have ever elected to public office. A star football player for City College who went on to Yale University, became a Rhodes Scholar and earned his law degree from Harvard, the West Baltimore native credits his family, his church and his high school for never allowing him to embrace low expectations. But if he has one regret from his stellar career in public service, from lawyer in private practice to Baltimore City State’s Attorney to first elected African American mayor to dean of Howard University Law School and today as president of the University of Baltimore, it’s that he did not make more progress in raising the quality of city schools.
“I had more ‘will’ than ‘wallet,’” says Mr. Schmoke, who served as mayor for three terms, the last person to do so. “I would have tried to devise a more effective plan for improving public education — public-private partnerships, teacher training, expanded pre-K, but it just wasn’t to be.”
Instead, what Mr. Schmoke will be remembered for is steady, thoughtful leadership and a willingness to think outside the box. He successfully brought down Baltimore’s crime-plagued public housing high-rises and replaced them with more human-scale apartments. He looked at the underused properties along the water east of downtown and got the ball rolling on Inner Harbor East, arguably the city’s most important development of the last three decades. One of his chief goals was to raise literacy. “The City That Reads” was the slogan he embraced. His cerebral, focused and steady approach to managing the city would surely be appreciated today. He would be reelected in a heartbeat — if he ever decided to leave academia, which seems unlikely.
“Around the city, he was often referred to as ‘my’ mayor as opposed to ‘our’ mayor,” says Angela Gibson, a former aide who has worked for five city mayors but still regards him as Baltimore’s finest. “Mothers and grandmothers looked at him like he was their son. They wanted their children to be more like Kurt.”
Mr. Schmoke’s election as Baltimore’s mayor in 1987 now seems like destiny. As an 8-year-old, he remembers walking down Light Street with his mother and seeing none other than Mayor Theodore McKeldin. He went up to him and asked, “Are you Mayor McKeldin?” The two-term mayor said yes, and shook his hand. Afterward, the youngster turned to his mother and offered a prediction: “I want to be mayor when I grow up.” Thirty years later, he was.
Of course, before that he was the starting quarterback for the City Knights through two undefeated seasons and two championships as well as president of City College’s student government his senior year. At Yale, he was a leader of the Black Student Alliance. After graduating from Harvard Law in 1976, he joined Piper and Marbury. Within a year, he took an advisory post with the Carter administration before joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office. After that came elected office, first as state’s attorney and then mayor.
“He could have been the first African American chairman of Piper Marbury or Venable,” recalls Daniel P. Henson III, a longtime friend who once tried to talk Mr. Schmoke out of running for state’s attorney but eventually served as his housing commissioner. “Kurt is the son that every mother wants. We couldn’t let him fail, and he didn’t.”
Besides his devotion to reading, his city redevelopment efforts (and the tussle over control of schools), Mayor Schmoke might be best remembered for suggesting that drugs should be treated as a public health challenge rather than as a crime problem. Decriminalizing drugs was not a popular opinion at the time, but he appears absolutely prescient today. He took a lot of flak, particularly from those advocating a “war” on drugs. He regrets none of it today. “I have no apologies,” he says.
Four years after returning to private practice in 1999, he was appointed dean of the Howard University School of Law and quickly fell in love with the job and the chance to nurture a whole new generation of leaders. And so it continued with his appointment as president of the University of Baltimore five years ago. He couldn’t be happier with his life outside politics that has now lasted longer than his career inside. “I just feel right now that this job allows me to continue in public service; I guess I get most excited about that,” he says.
Howard University President Wayne Frederick thinks his leadership skills, his temperament and his ability to relate to all kinds of people and find ways to disagree without being disagreeable make him an ideal fit for academia. “Kurt Schmoke left an indelible mark on our law school,” he says, “and he has a genuine joy for that job at UB. And that speaks to his altruistic spirit and his belief in young people and the need to invest in them heavily.”
Around the city, he was often referred to as ‘my’ mayor as opposed to ‘our’ mayor.