That mind-numbing silence emanating from the usually boisterous streets of political Baltimore this summer speaks volumes about the plight of city government these days.
Not enough Baltimoreans feel it makes a difference who's elected to City Hall offices. All the really important decisions are made elsewhere -- in Annapolis or in Washington.
The politicians themselves aren't lighting up the skies with fireworks this campaign season, either. Most candidates don't have enough money to awaken city residents from their stupor. Incumbents who do have the cash are content to win re-election as quietly as possible -- and look ahead to their next political ambition.
In Kurt Schmoke's case, it is United States senator. In Mary Pat Clarke's case, it is mayor or Maryland lieutenant governor. In the case of Jody Landers or Jacqueline McLean, it is mayor or Maryland comptroller. And in the case of many incumbent council members, it is state senator in 1994's redistricted legislature.
Mr. Schmoke's re-election is generally taken for granted. Two old war horses have challenged him in the Democratic primary. Both Clarence "Du" Burns and William A. Swisher are fighting yesterday's battles -- Mr. Swisher lost his post as state's attorney to Mr. Schmoke in a landslide upset in 1982; Mr. Burns narrowly lost to Mr. Schmoke for mayor in 1987.
Their campaign themes are tired retreads; their complaints against the mayor lack energy. Neither challenger has much money, and neither is waging a high-profile campaign.
While there is an undercurrent of discontent, with much of the unhappiness directed at the mayor, he still seems to possess a reservoir of good will with the public. Perhaps that's because there is no strong opponent. Or perhaps it has to do with the mayor's winning smile, obvious sincerity and good intentions.
A well-financed challenge might have exposed Mr. Schmoke's weaknesses. He has shown no management skills in four years on the job. He runs a one-man show. His aides seem to consist of loyalists or minimally competent paper-shufflers.
The city schools -- his top priority -- have shown few signs of improvement. Housing efforts have been limited to high-visibility programs. City crime, drugs and violence alarm everyone, but the administration still has yet to mount a counter-offensive.
Regardless, Mr. Schmoke seems assured of re-election. His political future looks bright. That's one reason the Schmoke-for-Senate talk has started.
This possibility, of course, depends upon a decision by Paul S. Sarbanes. Will he seek a fourth six-year term in 1994? Should Mr. Sarbanes, who would be 61 that year, decide to step down from such a demanding job, a Baltimore bandwagon might form around fellow Rhodes scholar Kurt Schmoke. You don't have to be a good manager to be a good U.S. Senator.
Followers of Mary Pat Clarke are especially eager to fan the Schmoke-for-Senate speculation. Were that to happen, she would take over as mayor in 1994 and run for a full term in 1995. With a leg up on the competition, she would be difficult to beat.
At the same time, should Mr. Schmoke decide to remain as mayor, Ms. Clarke could easily run for lieutenant governor in 1994. Gubernatorial candidates from outside the Baltimore area will be searching for the perfect ticket-balancer.
Ms. Clarke might fit the bill for Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening, state Sen. Laurence Levitan, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller or even House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell.
Likely opposition for Ms. Clarke for higher city office is almost sure to come from the next city comptroller. If either Jody Landers or Jackie McLean wins, the next comptroller would probably try to convince voters that he or she is more stable and more competent than Ms. Clarke.
Even Mary Conaway, the third main comptroller candidate, could well run against Ms. Clarke, campaigning as a nice, religious black woman in a majority-black city who is willing to make extravagant promises to get elected.
And as a fallback, in the event a third Schmoke mayoral term is in the cards, the next city comptroller could switch gears and run for state comptroller. After all, we don't think Louis L. Goldstein will live forever (though we confess we aren't sure). He just might decide to end his public career at age 81 after 36 years in the office and finally spend some time with his "good wife Hazel" in his much-beloved "Culvert County."
If that were to occur, a city candidate for comptroller could bring geographic balance to a ticket headed by someone outside the Baltimore region.
All this positioning for future races doesn't excite most city residents. It has been a lackluster campaign (except for a flap over redistricting), so blah many folks didn't even bother to register to vote. That's a sad commentary on the usually vibrant political life in Baltimore, and an even sadder commentary on the caliber of the current crop of city leaders and challengers.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun.