Stickers go on, gloves come off

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

February 19, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

On Sunday, former Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns told a television audience that he has made up his mind: He definitely will run for mayor again.

Yesterday, I saw my very first Du Burns bumper sticker. "Don't blame me," it said coyly, "I voted for Du Burns."

As you know, when the bumper stickers go up, the gloves come off, so as far as I'm concerned it is now official. We have a rematch, folks, of Campaign '87. Kurt L. Schmoke vs. Clarence H. Du Burns.

Once again, we can predict with confidence that Baltimore will be a hot little town this summer.

Why? (Stop me if you've heard this one). Because Kurt Schmokes and Du Burns.

L Seriously, though, this rematch will be a historic occasion.

In January 1987, Burns became the city's first black mayor when he took over for William Donald Schaefer, then governor-elect. A few short months later, in December, Schmoke became the city's first elected black mayor.

Burns, 72, a self-made man who never finished college and who worked his way up the political ladder the hard way, represented one generation, one model for success.

Schmoke, 41, a Harvard Law School graduate and Rhodes Scholar who won his first two citywide elections with seemingly effortless grace, represented another generation, a different type role model.

Burns was the insider, the experienced politico.

Schmoke was the outsider, the grass-roots man.

When these two men opposed each other last, the result was one of the closest mayoral contests in this city's history. Schmoke won by a smoke-thin four percentage point margin that confounded the pollsters.

Now, Burns believes, there is enough disenchantment with the mayor's performance to push him over the top.

"During the last debate, I predicted Schmoke would have this city floating down the Chesapeake," he said. "Now, everywhere I go, people come up and shake their heads and say: 'You said it Du.' 'You were right Du.'"

On Sunday, Burns raised some interesting questions about the Schmoke administration: Is there a groundswell of discontent with his performance? Is the city worse off today than it was four years ago, and is it the mayor's fault? Could a more experienced politician have done better?

My gut feeling is that the mayor has done a pretty good job. Compare Schmoke's accomplishments with his campaign promises in 1987 and for the most part you end up with a pretty close match.

Certainly a lot of the complaints we have heard these past four years have come from former Schaefer intimates whining that they can't get equally close with Schmoke.

It also is true, though, that the mayor has made mistakes. And most of those mistakes can be laid to the political inexperience that Burns warned us against in 1987.

It would be good to see the mayor challenged on issues of substance for a change-- good for the voters, good for the city.

With his political experience, his intimate knowledge of the city and how it works, Burns could be just the man to do it. In fact, he might be the only person who is said to be considering running this year to make such a challenge. After all, Burns is right when he insists that he was a pretty good mayor, too.

But I'm not sure Burns is the man to raise these issues effectively.

Truth is, the final results of Campaign '87 are misleading. The race was never as close, or as engaging, as the contrasts between the two men promised. Voters never really got a chance to ponder Burns' effectiveness as mayor. They never got to weigh the promise of Schmoke's visions against the reality of Burns' experience.

They never got that chance because Burns never really asked them to.

Burns, with all of the power and influence of the incumbency in 1987, could never get his campaign focused, never get it off the ground. It floundered. It stalled. It got sidetracked by meaningless peripheral issues such as whether his grammar was of mayoral caliber and who should or should not serve as his campaign manager.

Even now, Burns still blames his narrow defeat on a biased press -- which I've always considered the last excuse of a loser. The press didn't scuttle his campaign, he never got it afloat.

In 1987, Burns finished a close second despite his woeful campaign. He's got to do 10 times better than that in 1991 or he won't finish half as well.

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