In the second round, Schmoke has to come out boxing

R. B. Jones

December 12, 1991|By R. B. Jones

FOUR YEARS ago on this page I predicted that the heaviest burden of newly installed Mayor Kurt Schmoke would be fulfilling expectations of the African-American community, which had overwhelmingly cast its vote for him in the Democratic primary in 1987.

For the most part, expectations that Schmoke would make a noticeable difference in the fortunes of black people have been laid to rest. Blacks are resigned to Schmoke's limitations, but they are thankful he has spared them the kind of embarrassment Marion Barry generated in his declining years as mayor of Washington, D.C.

As Schmoke enters his second term, he can become a figure who grasps greatness or a man with potential who was overwhelmed by circumstances and his failure to understand the era in which he held office.

It may be a cliche, but these are times that try men's and women's souls. The national economy is in shambles and talk of a recovery is equivalent to whistling in a graveyard on a murky night. The federal government is being run by a president who, in 1980, called the policies of his predecessor "voodoo economics" and then proceeded to embrace them. George Bush hopes happy talk and buying socks at J. C. Penney's will create a recovery, while municipal and state governments starve to death on slashed federal assistance.

Congress seems incapable of or unwilling to assist. Cities like Baltimore are reducing services to citizens with no corresponding tax relief, and so those who can flee the city. Baltimore faces the hostility of of its neighbors in the General Assembly. Has anyone forgotten the abusive outburst of Senate President Mike Miller? He called Baltimore some choice names and then offered a weak apology. Yet his outburst showed what he truly felt about the city. Among General Assembly members, he is far from alone.

So Schmoke is in a situation many people think impossible. At moments like this, those who achieve greatness take risks. When the First Marine Division was surrounded at Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, its commander was asked whether the division would retreat. "Retreat, hell!" he exclaimed. "We're surrounded, so we're just attacking in a different direction!"

Schmoke has to attack in a different direction. First he should double the fees the city charges for providing water and sewer services to the county. That will help remind people that Baltimore is not merely a beggar, but a vital member of the metropolitan community.

Since the General Assembly is not likely to allow the city to impose a commuter tax or accept a proposal that the proceeds from piggyback income taxes be returned to the jurisdiction where people work rather than where they live, Schmoke has to propose a bold alternative for strengthening the city's tax base.

Schmoke should announce a program giving city residents preferential treatment over non-residents in city hiring and promotions, especially in managerial positions. (Sixty percent of city government managers live outside the city.) That would put everyone on notice that Baltimore will no longer be a passive victim of social Darwinism.

As Baltimore's top elected official, Schmoke must become in his second term the warrior the city needs. He must let the people of Baltimore know he has a vision for the future and how he plans to take us there. He must inspire Baltimoreans to share his vision and support his plans.

Schmoke has very little to lose. His aspirations for statewide office weren't helped by his third-place showing in November's vote totals among the top three citywide offices -- behind the City Council president and the comptroller. It does not much matter what national magazines say about him if he cannot lead the Democratic ticket despite a huge war chest and all the powers of incumbency.

If Schmoke won't become more daring, forceful and focused for the sake of the city he governs, he ought to do it simply for the sake of greater personal political ambitions than presiding over the decay of Baltimore city. The second term of Kurt Schmoke will determine whether he will make his mark in history or become just another footnote exemplifying what the old folks in my neighborhood used to call "potential that never developed."

R.B. Jones is editor of the Baltimore Times.

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