Schmoke sees pal Clinton giving bucks to Baltimore

ROGER SIMON

December 06, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

Last Tuesday was Kurt Schmoke's 43rd birthday and his Cabinet members marched in to see him wearing long black coats and snap-brim black hats.

They carried with them a fish wrapped in newspaper, a bottle of olive oil and a toy gun.

They were trying to look like gangsters (which in some cases was not much of a reach) as a joking reference to one of Schmoke's favorite movies, "The Godfather."

And when I interviewed Schmoke in his Cabinet room shortly afterward, I tried to find out if Bill Clinton had made him any offers he couldn't refuse.

Clinton had not. But Schmoke did talk about what he and the city could expect from the new president.

Schmoke, who was in Little Rock on Election Day, did not even try to see Clinton.

Could you have gotten in to see him if you had wanted to? I asked.

"Yes," Schmoke said, "but I didn't want to. I knew everybody would be grabbing for him."

So Schmoke played it cool. He went back to Baltimore, sent congratulations and waited. And several days later, the calls began.

The percentage of the vote for Clinton in Maryland was greater than any state except Arkansas. And certain people wanted Schmoke to know that this had been noticed.

"All these top guys called with their congratulations," Schmoke said. "They said the governor [i.e., Clinton] appreciated it."

Which was nice. But talk is one of the few things in America that is still cheap.

"And then they said, 'Here are the numbers to call,' " Schmoke said.

What numbers? I asked.

"The numbers of the top transition people," Schmoke said.

But why would you want those?

"Jobs," Schmoke said. "All Democratic mayors are getting resumes from people who want to work in the new administration.

"Obviously, you want some people to have more attention paid to them than others."

And so Schmoke will be one of those who help determine who gets that attention and who gets stiffed.

That is power. But it is not enough.

What Schmoke really wants is federal money to rebuild and reshape Baltimore, and a relaxation of federal rules on how that money is spent.

Thus far as mayor Schmoke has spent much of his time doing what he calls "sharing the pain." Now, with a Clinton presidency, Schmoke expects new money, easier money and, most of all, quick money.

"I want Baltimore to be the showcase city for Bill Clinton's urban policy," Schmoke said flatly. "If there is a pilot program somewhere, I want it here."

This will allow Schmoke, his people believe, to finally strut his stuff. With money and with the power to spend it in new ways, Schmoke will have his chance to replace William Donald Schaefer in the public imagination as the person who really rebuilt Baltimore.

There is a risk, of course: Now, Schmoke will have few excuses for failure.

You have real clout now, don't you? I asked him.

"Clout is like beauty and contact lenses," he said. "It is in the eye of the beholder."

Come on. You're up now, aren't you?

Schmoke shrugged. "For a while," he said.

And so he wants a fast start. Which is why he spent the rest of his birthday traveling to Washington to ask Housing Secretary Jack Kemp to lift some rules on how Baltimore can spend federal housing dollars.

But why bother with Kemp? I asked. He will be out of office in seven weeks and there will be a new, Democratic housing secretary.

"But the new guy has got to be confirmed and has to learn the ropes, and it could take a whole year," Schmoke said. "I don't want to wait that long."

Schmoke faces re-election in 1995 and it is safe to say that he would like a lot of progress by then.

And loyalty to the new president -- past loyalty, present loyalty and future loyalty -- is going to be important.

"I have told all Clinton's people that I want to be a strong supporter of his outside the Beltway and I want to plan for his re-election," Schmoke said.

His re-election? I said. The guy hasn't even been inaugurated yet for his first term!

"His re-election," Schmoke said firmly. "I want to work for that starting now."

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