From City Hall, Schmoke may gaze at higher office Senate, State House bids seen possible

September 13, 1991|By Doug Birch

Kurt L. Schmoke's solid victory last night all but guarantees him four more years in City Hall and also may offer him a shot at higher office -- most likely a place in the crowded pack vying for governor in 1994.

What the mayor thinks about his political future is not known. "I am not speculating on that," he said last night. "I have never heard him say anything other than that he wants to be mayor of Baltimore," said Ron Shapiro, the Baltimore lawyer who is one of the mayor's inner circle of advisers.

But some political veterans think Mr. Schmoke is eager to advance and see the State House as his next logical step.

"It looks to me as though he's certainly positioned himself for higher office," said Matthew Crenson, professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.

The mayor's career path seems to be leading him to seek election to the U.S. Senate or to the governor's office, political professionals said. Neither senator seems vulnerable or is talking about retiring. But Gov. William Donald Schaefer is barred from seeking a third term in 1994.

If the mayor hoped to move onward and upward, his re-election strategy of avoiding debate, which might have encouraged the low turnout, may not have helped him much. Armed with a $1.6 million campaign chest and faced with a 72-year-old opponent he had bested in 1987, Mr. Schmoke fell short of the crushing victory that would have established him as one of the state's most powerful politicians.

He already faces hurdles in any statewide contest. Like any big city mayor, he must persuade voters that he has made headway against the problems of crime, drugs and education. Like other Democrats, he would face a Maryland Republican Party that is stirring after a long hibernation. And the mayor carries some political baggage.

"His record does constitute something of a burden to him now," Mr. Crenson said. "There are people in the city that are somewhat disillusioned with his leadership in city government."

Mr. Schmoke's approach to politics is marked by an evident distaste for the laying on of hands: slapping backs, twisting arms and massaging egos.

Alvin Thornton, a professor of political science at Howard University, said the mayor's low-key approach has given him a reputation for being "an intellectual, administrator-type." That has helped sell the mayor, Mr. Thornton said, as a "non-threatening" black candidate to white voters.

But it has also raised questions about his role of chief lobbyist and cheerleader for the city. And some say it leaves voters wondering what the mayor's agenda is, beyond his "city that reads" campaign. Summing up the feelings of disgruntled Baltimoreans, former Mayor Clarence H. "Du" Burns said during the campaign: "I don't know what all the excitement was about anyway."

Mr. Crenson said some criticism may have been inevitable. "You make more and more enemies the longer you hold the job," he said.

And, he added, Mr. Schmoke's problems are not the kind that would cripple him with potential supporters: residents of predominantly black Baltimore City and Prince George's County and of affluent Montgomery County -- where voters tend to support well-educated, liberal and pragmatic politicians -- like the mayor.

Mr. Thornton said Mr. Schmoke might bump his head against the career "ceiling" that seems to keep black mayors from advancing. He cited the frustrated ambitions of Andrew Young in Atlanta, W. Wilson Goode in Philadelphia and Tom Bradley in Los Angeles.

"Some of that obviously is a function of the fact that black mayors often take over cities that are in a state of fiscal crisis and social disorganization -- and have little time to do anything but manage these crises, and so get hampered politically," he said.

But Mr. Schmoke might fare better than other black mayors, Mr. Thornton said. He might more closely resemble Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, who he said strongly appeals to white voters by "deracializing racial politics."

Like Mr. Wilder, Mr. Thornton said, Mr. Schmoke's message is "government efficiency. It is fiscal conservatism. It is not emotional outcry over social inequality."

It's not clear what kind of support Mr. Schmoke enjoys statewide today. But in October 1990, a poll for The Sun showed that he had a favorable image with 45 percent of Maryland voters while his unfavorable rating was only 10 percent. The rest had no opinion or hadn't heard of him.

At the time, those results put Mr. Schmoke far ahead of at least two other potential candidates for governor: Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. Others who are either talking about running or being talked about include state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's; Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat; and Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall, a Republican.

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