City likes Schmoke leadership, but wonders where it's being led Mayor's sincerity praised, not record THE: SCHMOKE YEARS

August 11, 1991|By Michael Ollove Sandy Banisky of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

In the humidity of a July evening, Kurt Schmoke stands in shirt-sleeves and suspenders on a sidewalk in Northeast Baltimore, listening to a catalog of community troubles.

He promises to put an end to the dumping of garbage in a nearby lot.

He frets that it will be a trickier business to start a recreation center.

He sips lemonade, flashes the most dazzling grin in Maryland politics, and then moves on, striding athletically down the street at the head of an entourage of aides.

As he leaves, many in the cluster of neighborhood residents watch the mayor a few moments more, the smiles not yet ready to leave their faces.

People like Kurt Schmoke, the earnestness in his manner, the self-deprecating wit, the boy-next-door wholesomeness. Their affection has created a cushion for him.

Near the end of his first term, the school system he promised to rectify has not yet emerged from the turmoil at the top. Violence in the streets is commanding his city's attention. And more homeless people than ever are sleeping in downtown doorways.

Yet, many remain willing to judge Mr. Schmoke not so much by what he is achieving as by the evident sincerity of his efforts.

"I think he's doing the best he can," said Jacqueline Moore, the mother of three children, after shaking the mayor's hand during his tour of her neighborhood. It was a common refrain.

But as Mr. Schmoke heads toward the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, there are signs that the good will is not infinite. Larry Mack, an out-of-work machinist and Air Force reservist, also greeted the mayor warmly during the Belair-Edison tour. But Mr. Mack has been disappointed. The elementary school hasn't improved noticeably. There are still no nearby parks with play equipment for his three young children. And street crime, which recently left Mr. Mack with a demolished van, is worse than ever.

In 1987, Mr. Mack cast an enthusiastic vote for Mr. Schmoke. In 1991, he says he's not so sure. He has started to realize that he doesn't know what the mayor of Baltimore stands for.

"I love this city, but I'm confused about where we're going," said Mr. Mack, 31. "To me, if there is a message, it just hasn't gotten across."

It is strange that Mr. Schmoke would not yet be fully defined. Though he is 41 years old, Baltimore has been watching the parade of successes that has been his biography for more than a quarter-century. But even as he runs for his second term as Baltimore's mayor, Mr. Schmoke remains a strangely remote, enigmatic public figure, as familiar to the locals as Fort McHenry but also largely impenetrable to all but a few.

He is an oddly contradictory package. He can appear friendly and warm, yet he insulates himself within a circle of intensely loyal advisers who are suspicious of outsiders. He is youthfully attractive, yet incapable of making the grand public relations gesture. He is a man who incited a national debate on drug decriminalization but is decidedly cautious and uncomfortable with conflict.

He is articulate and analytical, yet he has failed to create a sense of where he is taking the city.

He is resolutely unlike what we have come to expect from our politicians. He is not just unglamorous, but very nearly anti-glamorous. He is not simply uninspiring, but studiously subdued. Often he sounds like a man who believes flamboyance would raise doubts about his competence.

"I think it has been an effective style for these times for the city," Mr. Schmoke says, "a time that involved looking at some fairly unglamorous issues like infrastructure development and investments in human services programs and rethinking where the city was going in the future."

Mr. Schmoke acknowledges that in a city full of poverty and despair, his own life story is a symbol to many. Rarely, though, has he shown an inclination to use his office in symbolic ways. The day after he attended the funeral of 6-year-old Tiffany Smith, whose death by a stray bullet mocked her city's helplessness in a wave of killings, the mayor was asked what had been his worst moment.

Another leader might have taken the opportunity to stoke the city's furor against violent crime. Instead, the mayor mentioned a feud with the governor's office over money for Artscape, the annual arts festival.

=1 "That was clearly not a happy time," he said.


From the moment he won the mayoralty in 1987, Mr. Schmoke worried about becoming the focus of a city's unrealizable hopes. He was concerned, he said, that Baltimore would expect too much of him as city's first black elected mayor.

Four years in office hasn't changed him. "If you think in unrealistic terms and then those expectations aren't achieved, there's a tendency for people to drop out," he said.

Some say that the downsizing of expectations has made caution the hallmark of Mr. Schmoke's administration. "I'm discouraged by a lack of energy, by the lack of immediacy," said Marion W. Pines, a housing commissioner under former Mayor William Donald Schaefer.

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