Schmoke's not fighting for city

Dan Rodricks

November 15, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

"Rebuilt a branch library system badly in need of repair. Nine libraries have been renovated and reopened under Mayor Schmoke, and two more are being renovated now."

-- From "The Major Accomplishments of Kurt L. Schmoke as Mayor of Baltimore City," his 1991 campaign brochure

Well, it was good while it lasted -- "The City That Reads" bit, I mean.

"It would make me proudest," Schmoke said in his 1987 inauguration speech, "if one day it could simply be said . . . this is The City That Reads."

It was a great notion, something Schmoke held sacred. But now it looks as though Baltimore will have to come up with another motto. Something like, "The City That Needs" has an honest ring.

Whatever the new slogan, the old one will have to go. It has been turned into the stuff of ridicule, rendered ironic by the man who coined it. A mayor can hardly be touting reading and closing libraries at the same time, especially libraries in places like Cherry Hill, an enclave of poor people -- many of them working poor -- whose kids need more help, not less. They need more books, not less. They need doors opening, not doors closing. Kurt Schmoke might be good with numbers, but this week he showed that he's not so sharp with people.

He put library branches into the first round of budget cuts. Not the second. Not the third. And he did it right after the people of Baltimore re-elected him to a second term.

Closing libraries will further demoralize -- and diminish Schmoke's standing among -- the parents of the kids who used those libraries. A mayor writes messages in the sky by his actions in office, and the message over Baltimore this week runs contrary to the spirit of his 1987 inaugural.

Despite this, Schmoke has worked hard at building a constituency (including Cal Ripken Jr.) around improved reading, touting it as a spiritual lozenge for the under-educated people of this city.

We now have the Baltimore City Literacy Corp., a cabinet-level agency with, at last check, a budget of almost $1 million. There's Baltimore Reads Inc., a partnership between the city and private organizations dedicated to raising money for literacy programs. Add to that the window dressing: The City Hall Read-A-Thon, the literacy awards at Artscape, even a visit by First Lady Barbara Bush, wife of the self-proclaimed Education President. (Mrs. Bush is pictured in the mayor's campaign brochure, captioned as "among those cheering us on," which is a kind way of saying all she offered was lip service.)

Pushing reading was a great idea, an effort that would go a long way toward building self-esteem and empowering people who had been trapped by illiteracy. Entwined as it was with his admirable efforts on education, it highlighted Schmoke as a mayor who really cared about the hearts and minds of the children of the city. It seemed utterly, if awkwardly, genuine.

All the more reason to cringe at his decision to put libraries in the first round of cuts. And why hasn't he screamed at the governor, the legislature and, yes, even that nice Mrs. Bush?

Schmoke had to make cuts because of a $27 million budget shortfall that resulted from a $450 million state budget shortfall that resulted from a general economic shortfall -- Read My Lips: Recession -- and a federal government that has dramatically cut aid to Baltimore and other cities.

Don't be fooled by current events. The fiscal problems in Schmoke's city were building to this dark climax long before he took office.

The middle-class has been driven away from the city, pushed by the highest property-tax rate in the state. The median income of its residents has fallen to below half that of the city's wealthy suburbs. Thousands of people drive into the city each day to work, then drive home, pretty much oblivious to the profound human problems in this needy town. They pay taxes where they live, and they don't live in Baltimore.

Each year, The City That Needs has to beg for more help from the state. It doesn't deserve -- nor can it endure -- the kind of cuts the governor, by his political ineptitude, or the state legislature, by its ambivalence, or the White House, by its downright neglect, inflict upon it.

Nor can it sustain a mayor who won't fight, every bloody inch, to save all that he holds sacred.

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