The many joys of incumbency

Frank A. DeFilippo

August 22, 1991|By Frank A. DeFilippo

JACK and Jill and Dick and Jane are all a part of Mayor Kurt Schmoke's re-election campaign.

So, too, are IBM, Richard Hunter, the Ford Motor Co., Montel Williams, the Baltimore Police Department, the patronage parking passes at Memorial Stadium, the municipal agenda, the Department of Public Works, the city's two daily newspapers, its many radio stations and its commercial television stations.

And add to the list the city's recreation department, its fire houses, many of its political clubs, most of Baltimore's corporate elite, the sanitation department, the city-leased golf courses and the folks in the special services department who lower the mowers on city-owned grass. Having a million American dollars in the bank doesn't hurt, either.

It's called the power of the incumbency, the sum total of all the perks of public office available to the occupant. Schmoke has it, doesn't want to let go. Clarence "Du" Burns sniffed the hem of power, lost it, now wants it back. And for eight years, William A. Swisher carried a badge and a gun as Baltimore's law 'n' order state's attorney, all the while tooling around in a city-owned car. Now Swisher wants the mayor's reserved parking space at City Hall.

Welcome to the contest for mayor of Baltimore, 1991, a leapfrog competition among eight Democrats on one side and six Republicans on the other. The prize is governance of 92.01 square miles of real estate that H.L. Mencken described as "the ruins of a once-great medieval city."

No question about it, the incumbency has its advantages. It's kind of a permanent campaign, from the power to manipulate the media to the conditioned-air comfort of chauffeur-driven limousines. While Schmoke is surrounded by janizaries and carted around town in high-priced Lincolns like a mayoral maharajah, Burns is pounding the scorching pavements of East Baltimore with his good buddy and moneyman, Alan Quille. Swisher usually drives himself.

The companion issues of Schmoke's campaign are literacy and education. Thus, the mayor was able to call a news conference to boast of the success of his reading program courtesy of IBM computers, as well as to arrange (clumsily) the ouster of &L Superintendent Hunter to underline his displeasure with progress in the city's school system. Burns has been calling editors and news directors to complain that the media are ignoring his campaign.

But the media machinations reached the absurd last week when WMAR-TV allotted fully two minutes of prime news time on its 5 p.m. show so Schmoke could read a proclamation welcoming talk-show host Montel Williams to Baltimore. As television goes, watching Schmoke read a proclamation is about as electrifying as watching paint dry.

The media moment was no doubt arranged by Ron Shapiro and Larry Gibson, Schmoke's political gold-dust twins, who are best friends and business associates of WMAR's president, Arnold J. Kleiner. Burns and Swisher can claim no such affiliations.

When Schmoke took office in 1987, among the first things his transition team asked for was a list of patronage parking spaces at Memorial Stadium. Schmoke people quickly expunged the names of the late Irv Kovens and all of those Kovens had placed on the list when William Donald Schaefer was mayor and doled out the passes to their own political loyalists.

The Department of Public Works is probably the most visible sign of taxpayers' money in motion. Dispatching sanitation crews to neighborhoods is form-follows-function politics as well as good municipal hygiene. So, too, is locating grass-cutting crews at high-profile intersections around the city. All of it is contrived to say Schmoke's on the job.

Schmoke has a fully-staffed City Hall with a pipeline to the world, while Burns, until a couple of weeks ago, had no other campaign help but Quille and a couple of others. Many business (pronounced "bidness" hereabouts) leaders supported Burns the last time around, but now they're strangely silent or in Schmoke's pocket because they must rely on the incumbent for the favors of his office.

Despite the overwhelming advantages of the incumbency, the Schmoke campaign has taken a curious and suspicious turn. Gibson, the campaign commander-in-chief, is now attempting to spread the silly notion that Swisher is the candidate Schmoke must beat.

All of which suggests that Schmoke's polls must show that the mayor's support is broad but thin and that the contest between Schmoke and Burns is a lot tighter than Schmoke people would have us believe.

Being the incumbent is one thing. Knowing how to use the incumbency is another.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes on Maryland politics.

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