Clarke steals the spotlight, feels the heat

April 01, 1991|By Martin C. Evans

With only months to go before she faces re-election for th first time as City Council President, Mary Pat Clarke has thrust herself into what have proved to be the most controversial issues of her three-year tenure.

"This has been the worst, the worst," said Mrs. Clarke, who escaped from Baltimore last week to relax with her daughter in Chestertown after being in the thick of seven days of bare-knuckle political infighting. "I'm dead."

The question she is now left to ponder is whether she has emerged as a rising star in Baltimore's political constellation or will soon fall as just another once-promising politician derailed by a fatal misstep.

The two issues which energized the council and its president wereintensely political ones that arose on successive Mondays -- the first a plan to redraw the boundaries of the districts from which City Council candidates run and the second an even more parochial controversy over who should have the right to appoint the chairmen of City Council committees.

In both cases, Mrs. Clarke took center stage, and as many see it, increased her influence at the expense of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who kept a relatively low profile and emerged looking either like a man too timid for an old-fashioned political fight or too smart to get involved in a fracas that is fundamentally of little importance to the city's residents.

"There was definitely a void of leadership, almost a vacuum of leadership and initiative, and Mary Pat just took it," said Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, a frequentClarke ally.

"Sure she wants something, she wants to be mayor," said Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd, now a political foe of the council president. "She is obsessed by that, she's obsessed with power for Mary Pat Clarke."

Whether bitterness over her actions will harden into political opposition or will blow over by the next council meeting remains to be seen.

One of her allies during the redistricting battle, Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, says he believes Mrs. Clarke was damaged politically by her support of a plan that redrew the boundaries of the city's six council districts so that five now have black majorities.

"I think she was hurt in terms of popularity," said Mr. Stokes, who as architect of the plan welcomed her support. "Mary Pat has taken a big,big beating because of the race-baiting that has been going on in the white community."

But with the city's black majority at 60 percent and growing, her alliance with the seven black council members who pushed the redistricting plan may have been a shrewd political investment for a white politician who has talked openly about running for mayor after Mr. Schmoke leaves office.

Mrs. Clarke's decision to support the redistricting plan, which Mr. Schmoke reluctantly signed March 21, will increase the chances that more blacks will be elected to the council in the fall. Currently, seven of the 19 council members are black.

But it may not be that simple. She has apparently alienated Mr. Schmoke, Baltimore's most powerfulblack politician, who was said to have felt personally betrayed by Mrs. Clarke's support for a plan he feared would polarize the city racially in an election year.

The flap at last Monday's council meeting over the power to appoint committee chairmen was even more dramatic. Mrs. Clarke, who is as combative as Mr. Schmoke is reserved, unexpectedly demanded of her council colleagues that they rectify what she said was a personal humiliation they had inflicted on her on the day she was sworn in as council president in December 1987.

At that inaugural meeting, Mrs. Clarke said her family was forced to watch as she was "beaten" when the council stripped her of the power to appoint the chairmen. She viewed the loss as an attempt by the male-dominated council to take power from the first female president. She announced last Monday that the day of reckoning had come.

To those who were left wondering why so much was made of an issue of seemingly little importance outside the corridors of City Hall, Mrs. Clarke minced no words.

L"Power is never given," she said. "It always has to be taken."

Her pivotal role in those battles has left her looking, for the moment at least, as if she is very willing to take charge of City Council.

In doing so, according to some, Mrs. Clarke is filling a power vacuum left by Mr. Schmoke, who for the most part has chosen not to exert his will over the council.

But the arm-twisting and deal-making Mrs. Clarke used to win back the power to name chairmen has left many of her council colleagues bitter.

"She thinks she is the dominant political force in the city now," said Mr. Cunningham, who was stripped of a chairmanship by Mrs. Clarke. "I don't see any other top elected officials flexing their muscles."

Mrs. Clarke said that she is determined to help heal the battle wounds and that she has already begun mending fences.

For example, she said she plans to help one of the 3rd District councilman most upset by redistricting, Martin E. "Mike" Curran, meet voters in sections of Waverly that previously had been part of Mrs. Clarke's district. Now that Waverly is in the 3rd District, Mr. Curran may need its votes to win re-election.

Mrs. Clarke said she is confident that her critics will come to accept her support of redistricting and her fight for control over chairmanships. In the long run, Mrs. Clarke said, her detractors will accept her, if not forgive her.

"People in the city know there are some things I have to do, but they are honorable enough to judge me over the long term and for the long-term things I've done," she said. "I think I'll spend the rest of the spring and summer working with them."

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