City Council's political diversions

February 23, 1993

Baltimore's 1991 municipal elections produced wholesale changes on the 18-member City Council. The First District elected two newcomers to replace political fixtures who had each served at City Hall for more than two decades. New faces replaced old ones also in the Second, Third and Sixth Districts. By the standards of the City Council in a one-party town -- where too many of the seats went uncontested in the general election -- this was radical rejuvenation.

So how has the new council turned out?

Overall, it is a clear improvement over the old one. The council is more vocal, more assertive. On issues such as the incinerator ban and auto insurance studies, the council has even forced the mayor to change his initial stand, thanks to political stratagems engineered by novice members.

Yet there is a real danger of the council getting derailed even before it reaches mid-term. The reason is the increasingly open -- and often paranoid -- rivalry between Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. That wrangling is turning important policy matters into issues of political contention. Wittingly or not, so many council members are getting dragged into the disputes that one observer says, "if you could eliminate this mess between Mary Pat and the mayor, it would be an excellent council."

The tension between Mr. Schmoke and Ms. Clarke has been evident for years. In recent weeks, distrust between the two has grown steadily worse as Clarke partisans have realized Mr. Schmoke is serious about not wanting to get a job with the Clinton administration in Washington. Meanwhile, the City Council president has become increasingly disenchanted about the mayor's handling of many burning city issues, particularly the endless embarrassments concerning mismanagement at the Housing Authority and the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Ms. Clarke is not the only one getting more critical of the mayor. Two ostensible Schmoke allies, Rep. Kweisi Mfume and Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, recently expressed their concerns about the housing chaos. But it is Ms. Clarke's criticism that the mayor seems to openly resent as unwelcome meddling. If anything, it makes him more stubborn in his stands. The council -- and its Schmoke and Clarke loyalists -- reflect the increasing tensions. No end is in sight, despite the ouster of Robert W. Hearn as housing commissioner. Jockeying for future elections has begun.

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