Mary Pat Clarke is retiring after three tours at City Hall spanning four decades, including a couple of terms as the city's first female City Council President.
As city residents, their problems weren’t unique — issues with trash or playgrounds, vacant houses or a drug corner. But at least, members of a Northeast Baltimore neighborhood said at a recent gathering, they had a secret weapon.
“In Gotham City, they have a bat signal,” Anthony Walters Sr., said. “We had the Pat signal.”
Throw the signal up, and Mary Pat Clarke would materialize, said Walters, as he and residents of the Coldstream Homestead Montebello neighborhood known as CHUM gathered recently to pay tribute to their departing city councilwoman.
Clarke leaves the council Dec. 10 after one of the longest tenures of anyone on the city’s legislative body: 32 years, spread over 45 years, including two terms as its president and the first woman elected to that post.
This is the third time she’s left the council. At 79, the Democrat swears it’s the last.
“I feel good,” she said in a recent interview, “because of Odette. I know she’ll do a great job.”
That would be Odette Ramos, the Democratic community activist whom Clarke endorsed in the race to succeed her as the 14th District representative. Befitting Clarke’s trailblazing history, Ramos will become Baltimore’s first elected official of Hispanic descent.
The official history of Baltimore will note Clarke’s significance, not only as a woman in the city’s second-most-powerful post, but as someone who produced important legislation, including the nation’s first living wage law.
But on the ground level, where potholes widen, streetlights burn out or rec centers close, what Clarke most likely will be remembered for is her diligence in fixing such prosaic problems for residents.
The praise she receives for her attention to the grab-all category of “constituent services” can sometimes seem like a backhanded compliment — it’s small-bore stuff, hardly the grandest or most visionary thing upon which to hang a career.
But Clarke seems fine with being known for that — just not only for that.
“I have had some legislation, by the way,” she said wryly. “It does get lost in the onslaught of constituent work.
“But I came in from the communities,” said Clarke, who headed a coalition of neighborhood advocates before joining the council. “The local elected officials are the ones we rely on to give us a decent life, so we can just live in safety and peace.”
Her responsiveness, along with an energetic campaigning and governing style, made her one of the most popular officeholders of her time.
That is not to say she had no detractors — particularly among an earlier generation of pols who in one notorious incident successfully took her down several notches on her first day as council president — or that she never suffered defeat at the ballot box.
But hers is a career that spanned a time of sweeping change both in the city and its local government, some of which she helped usher in, such as the push to provide more opportunities for Black people and women on the council.
Clarke leaves office knowing the fight continues. She notes that only four of the council’s 14 members for the next four years are women.
That’s just one more than when she was elected in 1975 to the body, which then had 18 members. They were, however, a trio that pound for pound punched above their weight: The other two were Victorine Q. Adams, the first Black female council member and a civil rights activist, and Barbara Mikulski, who would become the longest-serving woman in the U.S. Senate.
Clarke, a former high school teacher turned stay-at-home mom, entered office much as her first council sisters did, from local and progressive activism. The longtime resident of Tuscany-Canterbury in North Baltimore rose through the ranks to become president of the Greater Homewood Community Corp., a coalition of neighborhood groups that formed in the wake of the 1968 riots. It’s now known as Strong City Baltimore.
She was elected to the council from the old Second District, when the city had six districts with three council members each. She served two terms, helping pass measures to reduce school class sizes and protect tenants’ rights.
She then ran unsuccessfully against one of her fellow District 2 council members, Clarence “Du” Burns, for the council presidency in 1983. That led to her first exit from City Hall, to work as an administrator at what is now Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
On a second try in 1987, in a tough, three-way race, she emerged victorious — only to be promptly hazed, as a Baltimore Sun article once characterized it. On her first day wielding the gavel, 12 council members launched a coup and stripped her of an important power. The group, largely veterans fearful that Clarke would appoint more junior members as committee chairs, voted to take that power from her and give it to themselves.
It was an astonishing and humiliating slap in the face, and Clarke had little choice but to accept it — “for the moment,” she said. But as she continued into her new role, she set the stage for reclaiming that power.
Soon after, Clarke staged a vote that, with some on-the-floor horse trading, restored her right to appoint committee chairs.
“I waited until I got the votes,” she said. “I didn’t say anything in advance.”
Today, Clarke says, sexism was behind the council members’ uprising against its first woman president.
One of the leaders of the revolt, Joseph T. “Jody” Landers III, said he didn’t think it was “completely” that. Rather, he faulted Clarke for not revealing in advance her plans for the committees and who would lead them.
“People didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “In politics, like nature, people don’t like a vacuum.”
Meanwhile, beyond council chambers, Clarke was growing in popularity in the city — to the point that other political and business leaders who considered her “unpredictable” failed to recruit a significant opponent to run against her in 1991. She won handily.
“I came in from the communities. The local elected officials are the ones we rely on to give us a decent life, so we can just live in safety and peace.”
Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke
Share quote & link
She had her triumphs as council president, including a 1994 bill that was the first of its kind in the nation, mandating that city contractors pay workers a living wage set by the Board of Estimates. Worker pay remained a priority over her career — she sponsored a minimum wage bill that ultimately was vetoed by then Mayor Catherine Pugh in March 2017. Clarke also maintained progressive stances over the years on issues rangingfrom housing to the environment to gay rights.
There have been setbacks that, depending on who is framing them, reflect either her tenacity or a propensity to take on losing battles — such as when she pushed through a tax cut in 1993, prompting then Democratic Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to veto the entire budget, a veto she didn’t have the votes to override.
While she and Schmoke had a history of supporting one another in previous campaigns, she decided to run against him when he sought a third term in 1995. It turned into a bruising battle that left her swearing off running for citywide office again.
Clarke entered as a long shot. But with the city in the throes of rising crime, faltering schools and continuing population losses, polls showed the feisty council president within striking distance of the more deliberate Schmoke, whose cerebral style seemed to some ill-suited to the urgency of the Baltimore’s woes.
In response to the challenge, Team Schmoke launched an all-out push to shore up the Black vote. In what some critics found to be racially divisive, he adopted the Black liberation colors of red, black and green to run against Clarke. She is white but had a history of drawing support and working across racial lines.
Schmoke, now president of the University of Baltimore, defends the approach, making the point that his campaign colors were no different from a Greek American politician like Paul Sarbanes using the Hellenic blue-and-white, or Irish Americans candidates adopting shamrock green.
“It’s what every politician has to do: consolidate your base and build on it,” he said. “I knew if she got 20% or more of the African American vote, I would lose.”
He didn’t. Analysts at the time pointed to how successfully the campaign tapped into the immense pride Baltimoreans felt for the mayor with the golden resume, the City College quarterback who went on to Yale, a Rhodes scholarship and Harvard Law, and the fear that their majority Black city might oust the first Black mayor it had elected.
Today, Clarke is loath to revisit her loss.
“I never wanted to see a community split like that again,” she said. “It turned real hurtful.”
Both say now that what’s past is past and express respect for one another. Schmoke lauds Clarke for being the “antithesis of a machine politician,” the kind that once dominated city politics, and making sure those outside “the old boys’ club” had seats at the table.
After the defeat, she spoke of going to divinity school, which Clarke says was misinterpreted as her going off to become a minister. Rather, she took some classes in religion and returned to what her mother always called her “real job” of teaching. Clarke, who has a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Pennsylvania, taught courses at Hopkins and other colleges in the area.
But she had one last chapter to her political career. In 2004, after Baltimore switched to single-member council districts, Clark ran and won the District 14 seat representing parts of East and North Baltimore.
That she would happily take a less powerful position on a council that she once presided over “shows her commitment to public service,” said Martin O’Malley, the former Democratic mayor and governor.
“For all her stature, it shows a basic humility that was at the heart of her public service,” O’Malley said.
Returning to the council put her back among some familiar faces, but in different capacities. Democrat Sheila Dixon, who was elected to the council the same year Clarke was elected its president, was now the president herself.
“She was just an extraordinary mentor to me over the years,” Dixon said. “A lot of my management style when I became City Council president was based on a lot of Mary Pat’s style.”
Dixon became mayor in 2007, becoming the first woman to win that post. She resigned in 2010 as part of a plea deal to resolve a perjury case and an embezzlement conviction stemming from a corruption investigation.
Clarke, she said, supported her through times “good and bad, up and down.
“I can’t say that about a lot of people,” Dixon said.
Maryland Policy & Politics Newsletter
Keep up to date with Maryland politics, elections and important decisions made by federal, state and local government officials.
Also on the council was Democrat Bernard C. “Jack” Young, an aide to Clarke when she was its president. He subsequently became council president and then mayor. He’ll leave office Tuesday as Council President Brandon Scott is inaugurated as mayor.
“There are technically 14 districts, but they’re all Mary Pat’s districts. On some fundamental level, Mary Pat has never fully, entirely stopped caring about all of Baltimore City.”
Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry
Share quote & link
Clarke’s reelection in 2007 also brought another former aide to the council, Democrat Bill Henry, now the incoming city comptroller.
“We used to joke as council people that there are technically 14 districts, but they’re all Mary Pat’s districts,” Henry said. “On some fundamental level, Mary Pat has never fully, entirely stopped caring about all of Baltimore City.”
As she wraps up her fourth term representing District 14, true to form, Clark said she is “racing to try to finish up a whole lot of pending constituent work” and attendingcommittee and council meetings held virtually due to the pandemic.
She doesn’t have specific plans for her post-City Hall life — except possibly another return to teaching.