Schmoke camp took notes from last election

MICHAEL OLESKER

June 25, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Four years ago, Kurt L. Schmoke ran for mayor of Baltimore as That Nice Young Man. Kurt, Kurt, you wanted to say. Loosen up! Undo your necktie! Call somebody a bad name!

Instead, he campaigned on a platform of self-conscious politeness. And it nearly cost him his future.

Everybody says it's going to be different this time around. They say he fought with his hands tied four years ago. The newspaper polls showed him running far ahead of Du Burns, but private polls showed him in trouble with elderly black voters who wanted reassurance. They wanted him to be respectful. They didn't want him criticizing that old gentleman Du, a man of their own generation and hardships.

Schmoke held his tongue but barely held on to his numerical edge. Election night, as his slim victory was affirmed, he looked less triumphant than apologetic. He knew he'd almost blown it. This time, he says he's learned from his mistakes. No more Mr. Nice Young Man.

Two nights ago, at the B&O Railroad Museum in West Baltimore, Schmoke officially opened his re-election campaign and unofficially declared his previous personality a thing of the past.

"This will not be like four years ago," he said in a quiet moment after spending two hours in a receiving line. "If people take shots at me this time, I'm gonna hit back. I'm not gonna stand there and take it."

He stood along the edge of well-wishers wearing a dark blazer and a button-down blue shirt. For four years, he's been the button-down mayor. Sometimes you want to say, Mayor, Mayor, loosen up! Toot your own horn a little! Let us know you're in charge in there!

Politics is as much the perception of reality as it is reality itself. (See: Schaefer, W. Donald). It isn't enough to accomplish good deeds if nobody knows about them. It's reassuring to people to hear good news. It tells them they've got a leader at City Hall. In the absence of somebody else's words, they make up their own.

Kurt Schmoke has spent four years working earnestly but too often keeping it to himself. He's been modest to the point of secrecy. He works 15-hour days, and nobody but his family knows it.

Into this vacuum, people fire shots. Du Burns says the city has no leadership. Bill Swisher says the mayor has too many Lincolns. The mayor says he'll sell one of the Lincolns but hasn't responded yet to the leadership charge. But he says he will.

"When I ran four years ago," he said, "I had to show people I respected my elders. This time, people want to take a shot at me, I'm not holding back."

A few minutes earlier, his campaign manager, Larry Gibson, had said much the same thing. Four years ago, he said, they felt they owed something to history. It was a subtle swipe at Burns, a hint that they hadn't wanted to rap the city's first black mayor.

They figured they'd win easily enough without stripping the old man of his dignity. Instead, while they had their backs turned, Burns nearly won the whole thing.

"This time," said Gibson, "we're not going to let Du take credit for things he shouldn't. We let him get away with things last time. This time, we're not. Same thing with Bill Swisher. The man was an indifferent state's attorney, and now he wants to be mayor. He's a nice man, but he's not a serious person."

Nobody questions Kurt Schmoke's seriousness. Some question his leadership abilities. Everybody questions the ability of any mayor to run a big city with the federal government showing no interest in paying any of the bills.

The question, then, is this: Does Schmoke take the blame for the feds turning the other way? Do voters look at the city's endless problems and blame the man at City Hall, whoever he may be; or do they know enough to point fingers at Washington?

"People read the newspapers," Gibson said. "They know Washington has abandoned the cities. In comparison with other cities, they know Baltimore's doing great. This isn't Detroit or Newark. People feel positive about Baltimore, but we have to fill in some of the blanks for them."

They may have to fill in more than blanks. Four years ago, Burns had no money and no TV advertising and nearly won. This time, he's got four years of Schmoke's record to try to pick apart. Some think it'll be another tight race.

"Let me put it this way," Del. Curt Anderson, of Baltimore, said at the mayor's fund-raiser. "I hear the mayor has a lot of hard work ahead of him, that this is not sewed up by any means. Kurt's got to work."

"Oh, absolutely," added East Baltimore City Councilman Nick D'Adamo. "My district, he's got problems. I've been out banging on doors for the last three weeks, and 80 per- cent of my people say they're for Burns.

"Of course, it's Du's home ground. He won by about 2-to-1 there last time. But I'm going door-to-door for my own campaign, and people are telling me, 'We gotta get Schmoke out of there.' I'm talking Highlandtown, Canton, Fells Point. I don't argue with them because, you know, I'm there to talk about my own campaign."

The word from Kurt Schmoke's people is that it's OK. The mayor can fight his own battles. And, unlike four years ago, he's no longer campaigning as That Nice Young Man.

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