Looking Toward the Political Future in Baltimore The City Council Turns Assertive

March 31, 1991|By MARTIN C. EVANS

If Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was to have a nightmare it might g something like this:

Nearing the end of his first term in office, with re-election a virtual foregone conclusion, the normally docile City Council takes on an aggressively assertive role by rejecting a redistricting plan they mayor said would preserve racial harmony and subsituting a plan he says could fan the flames of discord.

Suddenly, his reputation as a racial peacemaker, an image he has assiduously burnished since his days as a student at Yale University, is placed very much in question. Suddenly people in Hamilton and Locust Point and Homeland are besieging City Hall, wondering whether racial tensions will make their beloved city an unlivable hell, whether legitimate black aspirations for political power will harden into a tyranny of the majority.

Such a nightmare scenario in fact is being played out now in Baltimore, the reaction to the redistricting plan that Mayor Schmoke says was sprung on him without warning by Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd only hours before it came up for a preliminary vote March 18.

Mr. Schmoke has said the councilman's sudden unveiling of the plan amounted to a political ambush that did not allow communities ample time to study its implications.

But in acknowledging that he had lost the initiative on such a vital issue to a two-term councilman who has never held a citywide office, the mayor revealed what many observers are saying is a critical flaw in his administrative style.

Observers say the mayor has shown little ability -- or even interest -- in exerting his will in dealings with the city's legislative branch.

"The mayor certainly has not been a driving force in the city

council, and that has invited problems many times," said Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd, who was angry that the mayor's plan was not passed.

Because of this, his critics say, the council was able to seize the initiative in a matter that could affect Baltimore's political landscape for decades to come.

The Stokes redistricting plan, which reached final passage by a 16-to-3 vote March 22 during a bitterly confrontational, racially divisive council session, has created five majority-black districts in Baltimore for the first time in history.

In doing so, the council rejected a status-quo plan submitted by the mayor, which would have meant white majorities in the 1st and 3rd Districts, black majorities in the 2nd, 4th and 5th Districts and a 50-50 district in the 6th.

That such a palace coup could take place with so little resistance under prior administrations is all but unconceivable.

Past mayors, including William Donald Schaefer and Clarence H. "Du" Burns, deployed active, energetic legislative envoys to disseminate their views on pending bills, lobby for support and ferret out opposition.

Joan Bereska for Mr. Schaefer and Harry Loleas for Mayor Burns regularly prowled City Hall's fifth-floor suite of councilmanic offices, counting votes and shepherding reluctant members back into line, often before even the most routine of measures.

Council members say that is in sharp contrast with the habits of Mr. Schmoke's staff, who observers say often don't even bother to return telephone calls from council members seeking direction.

For example, when council members urged the mayor's staff to work with them in verifying the meaning of census data that they were asked to use in analyzing the mayor's plan, the administration responded with a brief from its legal officer, which said the mayor was not obliged to work with the council in interpreting census data.

Supporters of the mayor have said that although his difficulties with the council are troublesome, he is wise to distance himself from what is a mostly powerless branch of government. They say he is should keep his eye on the big picture, rather than allowing himself to get distracted by the rough and tumble of council politics.

"The real issue is can we stay solvent, can we put in a competent educational system and how do we survive past the year 2000," said Daniel Henson III, a businessman who advises the mayor on political matters. "You can't have that if the mayor is always down in the mud over every battle."

Nonetheless, the mayor's protestations over being surprised by the Stokes plan brings with it a certain irony.

Council members who characterize themselves as allies of the mayor say they are constantly being embarrassed by sudden initiatives the mayor has taken without advising them of his plans.

For example, the mayor two years ago proposed a controversial bill that would require most large buildings in Baltimore to be retrofitted with expensive sprinkler systems. While council members were trying to decide whether to support the bill -- which had strong union backing -- or suffer the consequences, the mayor apparently chose to back down, leaving it a virtual orphan. It remains unpassed.

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