Election's over -- Now it's Schmoke's move

Frank A. DeFilippo

September 19, 1991|By Frank A. DeFilippo

BALTIMORE'S primary election provided a comic-opera glimpse of what life will be like under the ministers of influence who will inhabit City Hall for the next four years (assuming, of course, that the Republicans will be shut out of office as usual).

Board of Estimates meetings ought to be especially uproarious. The city's top elected officials occupy three of the five seats. The karma's definitely bad.

Mayor Schmoke doesn't like City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. Clarke doesn't like Schmoke. Clarke and Jacqueline McLean, the Democratic nominee for comptroller, barely speak, and when they do it's not civil. Schmoke doesn't like to fight. Clarke always has a chip on her shoulder. And McLean's a scrappy lady who could function either as agitator or conciliator between Schmoke and Clarke. (Already she's probably thinking

of running for mayor, maybe even over Clarke's dead body.)

Schmoke entered the campaign for re-election as mayor and wound up a contender for statewide office. Clarke was running to retain her job as City Council president, thinking all the while of becoming mayor. And McLean ran for comptroller wondering if she'd win at all.

Schmoke's first great task, in a sense, will be to repatriate himself in the minds of his constituents. He needs to "come pTC home" and get down to business. He also needs to reorganize his administration. Schmoke's City Hall is suffering from a bad case of the blahs.

His 57 percent of the vote, in an indifferent 35 percent turnout, when there was no council competition in two predominantly black districts, when the voters' mood is anti-incumbent, can be viewed not as a mandate but as a friendly pat on the back.

Whether Schmoke seizes the opportunity and shucks off the impression that he's a cautious sleepwalker is another matter.

His second crucible will be the organization of the City Council. In 1987, Schmoke walked away from the fight. The council rebelled against Clarke and organized itself in a fit of self-determination, only to have power snatched back by Clarke after she won the redistricting battle last spring. On several occasions, Schmoke was forced to withdraw his own legislation for lack of a working majority on the council.

This time around, both Schmoke and Clarke are dealing with five new members and lacking the services of such negotiable bargain-hunters as Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro and John Schaefer, who were given the bum's rush in the 1st District.

Clarke's advisers are already calculating the allegiance of at least 10, possibly 12, members of the council, including three of the new members whom she personally helped to elect. She also personally intervened to help defeat a strong challenger in her own 2nd District. On the 18-member council, 10 members constitute a majority. Yet, as every political hobbyist knows, no two issues are alike and majority coalitions shift from issue to issue.

Yet if this is the case, and Clarke is hell-bent on fashioning a stone wall of 10, Schmoke can dig in and get ready for trouble. From among the council's 18 members Schmoke must find a floor leader. Yet Clarke sponsors a vice president and passes out committee assignments.

While Schmoke and Clarke are at each other's throats, McLean, for her part, is in the enviable position of rising above the background noise and fashioning a new citywide constituency of her own. As comptroller, she's a member of the Board of Estimates, presides over the city's auditors and its real estate division and sits on the pension board as well as many other key finance committees.

Outside of City Hall, Schmoke has the job of laying down some heavy Baltimore soul in Annapolis. He's stuck with the troublesome task of converting a modest 35 percent turnout into hard currency. For in the realm of send-'em-a-message politics, such low voter interest undermines the city's clout across the state by saying that Baltimore's no longer a political force to be reckoned with or counted on in statewide elections.

The election's over. The next move is Schmoke's.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on Maryland politics.

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