Clarke: Political Godmother

March 27, 1991

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke presents a political paradox. He is running for re-election without any serious challenge, yet he has been surprisingly weak in his dealings with the City Council, where he does not even have a legislative floor leader. This has provided an opening to City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. With a series of deft power moves she has gained a position where she can serve as a political godmother at a time when the city is preparing for September's primary elections.

The most decisive of those moves was last week's redrawing of the election district maps in which the council rejected the Schmoke administration's proposal and enacted its own version.

That version was the initiative of Councilman Carl Stokes and the council's black caucus. It was the white Mrs. Clarke, however, who did much of the behind-the-scenes persuasion that produced the necessary white votes to pass it. The next act was equally impressive: using the black coalition as her base, she twisted arms and browbeat the council to restoring her power to appoint committee chairmen, a privilege that was stripped from her three years ago.

"I'm asking you for one thing. Let me have the power," she demanded. To the council's black members, she lectured about Martin Luther King Jr. To get the last vote she needed to jam the change through in one night, she offered two high-visibility committee chairmanships to whites.

There may be nothing particularly galling about this kind of horse-trading. The point is, though, that while Mayor Schmoke has been unable (or unwilling) to dictate his will this way, Mrs. Clarke has proven willing and able to do so. In politics, that kind of ruthlessness translates into power.

This year's elections are certain to produce significant changes on the 18-member City Council; Mrs. Clarke herself predicts eight novices will be elected. Since her own re-election is not threatened, Mrs. Clarke should be able to manipulate the situation regardless of whether she is dealing with incumbents or newcomers.

Power has its downside, however. Baltimore's city government gives the mayor broad powers, relegating the legislative branch to a secondary role. The system works unless force of personality reverses the pecking order. Mr. Schmoke had better look to his prerogatives because Mrs. Clarke, despite charter limitations, is feeling her oats.

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