Clarke embarks on a power trip in City Council


March 29, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

What leader made the following statement:

"Power is never given. It always has to be taken."

Was it:

A. Saddam Hussein upon crushing Kuwait?

B. Benito Mussolini upon crushing Ethiopia?

C. Mary Pat Clarke upon crushing the Baltimore City Council?

That's right, it was C.

Mary Pat Clarke, Baltimore's City Council president, mounted a considerable coup this week to show that she could be as vindictive as anybody in Maryland politics.

Clarke had lost the power to appoint committee chairmen back in December 1987. And this week she decided she had to have that power back.

Some were confused as to why she had to do it now, with the city in turmoil, but Clarke provided the answer Monday: "It had to be tonight so everyone could see who's what and who the real leaders are."

Translation: "I've got to show the blacks on the council that I've got power, too."

Clarke had provided the critical vote and critical support in a redistricting plan engineered by the seven black members of the council last week.

But Clarke also realizes how vulnerable she is: If Baltimore can elect a black mayor and if Baltimore can create conditions for a black majority City Council, why not go all the way and elect a black council president, too?

So it was time for her to flex her muscles and show her new coalition "friends" that she could play rough and exercise power this week like they had last week.

Clarke needed 13 votes out of 19 to get her powers back, and it turned out that the key vote was that of Joe DiBlasi, D-6th.

"At about 10 minutes after 5 p.m. on the night of the council meeting, I ran into Carl Stokes," DiBlasi said. Stokes, D-4th, had led the redistricting fight the week before.

"Stokes said: 'We need your vote. Go along with us and it will pay off in the long run,' " DiBlasi said.

DiBlasi then noticed that Mary Pat Clarke was lurking off to the side to watch DiBlasi's reaction.

Unfortunately for Clarke, who probably had spent the night practicing her lurk, DiBlasi didn't have much of a reaction. He didn't know what the heck Stokes was asking him for.

Clarke could have gone to DiBlasi herself, but by making Stokes her messenger, she bent Stokes to her will also. It was a sound political move.

The council meeting began and Clarke announced that she wanted her power back. And even though Clarke was virtually vibrating with emotion, DiBlasi was not overly impressed.

To tell the truth, the public does not really care who appoints the committee chairmen, and to tell a larger truth, it really doesn't make a whole bunch of difference except to the players themselves. This is not the kind of issue that improves the city.

"But I've seen Mary Pat when she is aggressive and I've seen her when she was emotional, and she really wanted this," DiBlasi said.

Although Clarke needed 13 out of 19 votes, on the first ballot she only got six votes for her, six votes against her and seven passes or abstentions.

DiBlasi had passed, not because he opposed Clarke but because he wanted to see what he was going to get from Clarke.

That was Clarke's big mistake. A canny politician doesn't let anyone see how much he wants something. Otherwise, the price goes up.

"Mary Pat's people were all over me on the council floor," DiBlasi said. "But I kept telling them: 'I wanna know what her agenda is. I wanna know what I am going to get.' "

He soon learned he could get the head of Tim Murphy, D-6th.

Murphy is an opponent of Clarke's and chairman of the Taxation and Finance Committee. Murphy and DiBlasi are friends, however, have been running mates twice, and have worked together representing the same district for eight years.

"So I am sitting there during the meeting," DiBlasi said, "and one of Mary Pat's aides -- I honestly don't remember which one, there were so many of them around me -- bends over and says: 'You can have Tim Murphy's committee tonight if you vote with Mary (( Pat.' "

DiBlasi badly wanted a committee chairmanship, but he thought Clarke was hitting too far below the belt even for the City Council.

"I said, 'No, thank you,' " DiBlasi said. "I said, 'He's my colleague. That's impossible.' There were a sea of people around my desk. And the next Clarke aide said: 'John Schaefer says you can have the budget committee.' "

Which is when DiBlasi got smart. "Are they really telling me the truth?" he wondered. "Or are they lying to me?"

Which is the second lesson Clarke learned that night. When you wield power like a club, it might make people fear you but it does not make them trust you.

So DiBlasi got up and walked across the council floor to Schaefer, D-1st, and found out that, yes, Schaefer was willing to go along. He would give up his committee chairmanship to DiBlasi.

DiBlasi didn't know what deal Clarke cut with Schaefer, but DiBlasi did know that he was very popular in two wards that would soon be moved from his district to Schaefer's district and Schaefer would want his support.

So the deal was made, right?

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