Prospect of city impoverishment undoes its button-down mayor

MICHAEL OLESKER

October 13, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The mayor of Baltimore has passion in his voice, which is unexpected. This is a man who wears cool as a constant cover. Whatever emotions he's going through, whatever fires may burn inside, Kurt L. Schmoke has kept them to himself until now.

The governor snubs him? The mayor keeps his anger under wraps. His political foes slap him? The mayor shows them little but respect. The city flirts with disaster? The mayor keeps his emotions as buttoned-down as his wardrobe.

But last Tuesday, at a polite reception on North Avenue, the words unexpectedly began bursting out of him. These cuts in Annapolis, the mayor said. This insensitivity in Washington. People didn't understand the pain that would come: the end of preschool programs, the end of health programs, the end of libraries in The City That Reads.

''I've never heard him that emotional,'' said one city official. ''He was really fired up, really upset. The words just poured from him. And, to tell you the truth, it was inspirational. It's good to see him let go. He seemed a little embarrassed when he was finished, but he shouldn't have. He has to understand that people need to see that emotion.''

In Carroll Park the next day, the mayor took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He struggled to keep from crying in public. The city cannot survive this way, he told marchers as he sent them off to yesterday's Save Our Cities demonstration in Washington.

The nice man in the White House must begin to pay some attention to urban America, or urban America will not survive. And yet, even as his passion surfaces, Schmoke knows that urban America has now reached a turning point from which it cannot go back.

''The cities,'' the mayor said late in the week, ''are treated like an unwanted relative in the national family. That's what we all want to tell the president. We have to get help. But I know that we're not going to get the help we need. We're not going to turn back the clock.''

There is resignation in his voice now instead of passion. His veil of cool has returned for the moment. He's riding in a car between Washington and Annapolis, beneath the shadow of a White House that turns its back on cities and a state government now discovering massive problems of its own while Washington shrugs.

''We're not going to see another War on Poverty,'' the mayor says. ''I think there will be some response out of Washington, but it won't be a massive investment. Not any more. They'll pick their areas now, and that will be that.''

In a decade, direct federal aid to Baltimore has dropped, in constant 1980 dollars, from $199 million to $61 million. It's been a Republican decade. In sheer political terms, Ronald Reagan and George Bush understood that their strength was not in the cities. So turning their backs on those cities cost them exactly nothing in votes.

But it's an act of self-destruction. A decade ago, this city was celebrating its own rebirth. The infusion of federal money had helped rebuild downtown, helped bring neighborhoods back from the grave. Doesn't anyone in Washington understand the glow which burned from that, which spread across the state? Doesn't anyone understand that 10 years of neglect now move cities like Baltimore back to the edge of the grave?

''We're not the president's constituency, I guess,'' Schmoke says now. ''His votes aren't here. My gut feeling is that we're an extremely low priority to him, because of politics. And that's terribly frustrating. European countries get money, and we get frustration.''

The frustration is beginning to show on the mayor, but he's a little uneasy talking about it. Yes, he says, he was pretty emotional in Carroll Park. He kept thinking about the pain that is coming.

''But,'' he says, ''I was tired, too.''

He's rationalizing his public show of passion, and therefore missing the point. This is the time for anger, not for veils of cool. The time for politeness is past. Battles for power are waged not only along moral lines, but over which sides makes the most convincing pitch to mass media.

That's why yesterday's Save Our Cities march was so important. Others, involving more cities, are to follow. The idea isn't merely to make a case to the man in the White House. He already knows the case, but chooses to ignore it.

The idea is to embarrass him, to make the case for people across America opening their newspapers and turning on their television sets: It's worse in the cities than they know. It's getting dangerous here, and the danger can only spread outward.

''We have to cut 14 library branches,'' Schmoke said, as his car sped between Washington and Annapolis. ''That pains me, in The City That Reads. I've already had to cut 2,000 positions in city government in the last three years. That's the direction we're heading.''

The words emerge in calm and measured tones, an echo of the mayor we've heard for four years. But maybe it's only a pause. Maybe it's a new mayor emerging now: one with his anger on his sleeve, his passions out in public, a man who understand the emotions of the job along with the gray, administrative side of it.

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