Looking Toward the Political Future in Baltimore Can Any Challenger Exploit Schmoke's Weak Points?

March 31, 1991|By PATRICK GILBERT

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke quick signing of the City Council'

radical new redistricting was a major surprise becouse the mayor had spent the previous week criticizing the plan as unfair and probably legally flawed.

But his swift action showed his concern for the criticism he took from black leaders who said Mr. Schmoke's plan was too cautious.Leaders alsdo suggested that Mr. Schmoke might have been putting his own political future into doubt if he vetoed the council's plan.

With this summer's municipal elections looming on the horizon it was clear the mayor wanted to do the right thing.

Politically that is.But why was he so worried

Mr Schmoke has raised more than $1 million for his campaign war chest and hec has the very tangible benefits of incumbency.So far,he has only two opponents, former Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns, who as an incumbent lost to Mr Schmoke in 1987,and William A,Swisher,Whom Mr Schmoke beat in the 1982 state's attorney race when Mr. Swisher was an incumbent.

Two others are thinking about entering the race: state sen.julian L. Lapides and Northwestern High School principal Boyse mosley

An incumbent office holder is usually the most vulnerable at the end of the first term in office, and the mayor is no exception.His first term record reveals weaknesses in some key areas that could be exploited.But political observers don't view these weaknesses to be fatal enough that any of the current opponents could ride them to victory.

When he ran for the job in 1987,Mr Schmoke made his top priority an improved school system.He promised to lower class size in kindergarten through grade 5.That hasn't happened.The man he chose to lead a new renaissance for the schools,Dr Richard Hunter ,has been a source of public embarrassment for him if not a public headache.Mr Schmoke finally saw to it that Dr.Hunter would leave after this school year.

The School system may not have slipped any further into decline since Mr.Schmoke took office,but it certainly has not gotten appreciably better.

Mr Schmoke disputes this,contending that his administration can show progress in education than it is given credit,He points to a new program such Writing to Read and Future Bound as just a few examples of progress made.The mayor also feels strongly that his move towartd school-based management will be the key to marked improvement in city schools in the years to come.

But Mr Schmoke admitted taht such controversial issues as textbook shortages and the problems with Dr. Hunter have dwarfed the accomplishments.

"I expect that Dr. Hunter and other education issues will be used by my opponents against me in the campaign, but I think we have a record to show that the school system hasn't been left in a holding pattern," Mr. Schmoke said.

Also, despite his best efforts, the mayor has failed to extract major new funding for the city from the state. Meanwhile, the city's revenue shortfall grows annually. Mr. Schmoke also has seen his legislative agenda criticized by members of his own city General Assembly delegation, who early on said Mr. Schmoke was too cautious in his legislative efforts.

Mr. Schmoke said the argument could be made that the city could have done better in getting more state aid but that it has nothing to do with his administration's relationship with the legislature or Gov. William Donald Schaefer. "I'm very pleased with both relationships," he said.

The mayor's low-key style also has been called into question. Some observers believe the only effective mayor for a large urban city with financial problems is one who can be a good street fighter.

"Some in the business community are disappointed that the mayor has not been more decisive. That he hasn't used his power more effectively," said a business leader who asked not be identified. "On the occasions that he has, it causes people to take notice."

But style is not an issue the average voter is going to consider directly in the voting booth. The city has continued to function, trash gets picked up and potholes filled. Despite an ever-increasing yearly revenue shortfall -- the gap between anticipated revenues and expected expenditures -- the mayor has proven to be an effective fiscal manager, keeping lay-offs and service cuts to a minimum.

"His administration seems to operate on the premise that it's better to avoid the major political pratfall than it is to take bold steps," said another business leader.

Mr. Schmoke said he feels his administration has done a good job running city government while at the same time meeting some very difficult challenges. The biggest challenge, he noted, was overcoming the shutdown of federal aid flowing into cities. In 1982, federal funds made up 34 percent of the city budget. Last year, they had dwindled to 9.5 percent.

"If any of my opponents criticize the job I've done, then they better make clear what they would do to make the situation better," the mayor said.

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