A Burns-Schmoke Rematch?

December 08, 1990

From his first day on the job as mayor of Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke has been his own worst enemy. His honesty is impressive, his good intentions unquestionable. But the longer he stays in office, the more striking is his indecisiveness. He cannot bear to do the things needed to rid his administration of complaints of inaccessibility. Neither, apparently, can he make up his mind about School Superintendent Richard C. Hunter.

After three controversy-filled years, the school board has now graded Dr. Hunter only as "satisfactory." But is a C-minus in management good enough for a school system with so many problems it requires A-plus leadership?

This is a question Mayor Schmoke has to answer in an election year. After all, it was Mr. Schmoke who insisted on hiring Dr. Hunter when the school board wanted someone else. It was also Mr. Schmoke who almost fired the superintendent earlier this year. As a result of a lawyer-negotiated settlement, Dr. Hunter was allowed to stay on the condition that he hire a capable deputy to run the day-to-day affairs of the system. By all accounts, that arrangement -- which junked Dr. Hunter's much-touted top-level reorganization -- has been successful. But what will happen when J. Edward Andrews, the deputy, leaves in June?

Mr. Schmoke made education the central issue of his 1987 campaign. Education is certain to be a top issue in next year's election as well. So far, the mayor has no evident opponent, but Clarence H. "Du" Burns, the former mayor and long-time City Council president, is making noises about running. Mr. Burns thinks that Mr. Schmoke, who narrowly defeated him in 1987, is squandering the momentum that marked Baltimore during the 1980s. "I don't know who is directing the band, but it is not playing in harmony," he says.

Last month's elections showed how volatile local politics can be in these days of high voter discontent. Seemingly invincible incumbents lost in Baltimore and Howard counties. Can it happen in Baltimore City? Perhaps. We detect some of the quiet discontent in the city that was evident in Howard County. In the end, voters there ousted an executive, who was seen as too accommodating. People wanted stronger leadership.

Mr. Burns, who is 72, has years of government experience and wide name recognition. He also would be helped by redistricting, which could prompt a heavy voter turnout and record numbers of candidates seeking 18 City Council seats. Those factors would make it easy for a challenger to form a city-wide ticket. Will that be enough against a heavily financed incumbent? It could depend on the level of voter unhappiness. Judging from the upsets on Nov. 6, we doubt Mr. Schmoke will take his re-election for granted.

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