Schmoke would reject HUD, though he earned it

ROGER SIMON

December 04, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- When Kurt Schmoke showed up at the office of Housing Secretary Jack Kemp on Tuesday, Kemp must have thought Schmoke had come to measure the place for new curtains.

Because Kemp is well aware of the rumors that Bill Clinton will soon name Schmoke to his Cabinet.

"This is the next secretary of Housing and Urban Development!" Kemp said to his staff with Schmoke standing at his side.

"C'mon," Schmoke said, "cut it out."

"I told Clinton that he should appoint you," Kemp said.

Schmoke smiled and shook his head. "I just want to be a better mayor," he said.

Which Kemp probably found baffling. In Washington, being a mayor is not a very big deal. (Schmoke was here to seek a favor from Kemp for Baltimore.)

And many find it unimaginable that Schmoke would actually turn down a Cabinet post.

But Schmoke told me Wednesday that members of Clinton's transition team have approached him about the HUD job and that he poured cold water all over the hot idea.

"I am not seeking the job," Schmoke said. "I don't want the job."

But one can see why the rumor has taken on a life of its own.

Leaving aside for a moment how successful or unsuccessful Schmoke's housing policy has been in Baltimore (which probably wouldn't matter much anyway), a Schmoke appointment makes sense for a number of reasons:

* Schmoke was an early and active supporter of Clinton. Early is the key word. Anybody can support a candidate when he looks like a winner. Schmoke worked hard for Clinton when Clinton's victory was far from assured.

* Clinton has promised "a White House staff, a Cabinet and appointments that look like America." In other words, Clinton must recruit several minority members, not just a few tokens.

* Schmoke is of Clinton's generation, has a similar educational background (both attended Yale and are Rhodes Scholars) and has a political and personal life that are free from scandal.

In an interview a year ago, Schmoke told me that when he was done with elective politics, two Cabinet positions might interest him "if the Democrats ever elect a president."

"Attorney general and HUD," he said. "Though with my drug stand, I suppose that's out now."

Wednesday, Schmoke said he still believes his support for drug decriminalization disqualifies him from the Clinton Cabinet.

"Just look at the politics of it," Schmoke said. "Clinton has to stay focused on the economy and he doesn't need any distractions."

But why would you be a distraction? I asked.

"My position on drugs," Schmoke said. "Can you imagine what the Republicans on the committee would do with that?"

(The new HUD secretary must be approved by the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.)

Who cares? I told Schmoke. The Republicans are a minority on all committees. As far as I can see, your drug stand rules you out only for attorney general.

"Or drug czar," Schmoke said with a big laugh.

But the people who believe the rumor that Schmoke will enter the Cabinet are forgetting one big factor:

If Schmoke resigns to go to Washington, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke automatically is elevated to the mayor's chair. And Kurt Schmoke would rather eat nails than see that happen.

He does not like Mary Pat Clarke (who did not endorse him in his last primary), nor would Baltimore's black community easily forgive Schmoke for handing the mayor's office back over to white rule.

So while Schmoke leaves the door open a hair's breadth on taking a Cabinet post -- "There would have to be a major turn of events for me to change my mind," he says -- it is far more likely he will do what he has publicly pledged to do: Run for a third term as mayor in 1995.

Which is not to say Schmoke doesn't expect a reward from Bill Clinton.

In politics, if you labor in the fields of the victor, you get to dine at the victory feast.

And Kurt Schmoke already has pulled up his chair.

SUNDAY: What Schmoke really wants

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