1994 governor's race heats up: Schmoke says he may enter

February 26, 1993|By Sandy Banisky and Tom Bowman | Sandy Banisky and Tom Bowman,Staff Writers

The 1994 race for governor of Maryland suddenly got more interesting yesterday as Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke went to Annapolis and said he is considering a bid for the State House.

"I will explore it. . . . I'll give it serious consideration," Mr. Schmoke said on a visit to testify in favor of expanding the Baltimore Convention Center -- a visit quickly dominated by his surprise comments about his political future.

"A number of people have approached me about the possibility of my running for governor," Mr. Schmoke, who's in his second term, said. "I said that I'd take some time, a fairly short period of time, to explore the possibility and get back to them."

Was this a trial balloon? "You could call it that," an aide to the mayor said later. "I won't, but you can."

Baltimore's next mayoral election will be held in 1995, a calendar that would allow Mr. Schmoke to keep his City Hall job while running for the State House next year. If he should win, Mr. Schmoke would be succeeded by City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who would finish his term and would then have the incumbent's edge in the mayor's race.

If he runs for governor, Mr. Schmoke would join a field of Democratic candidates that is expected to include Lt. Gov. Melvin A. "Mickey" Steinberg, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening.

For some political horse-players, Baltimore's mayor would become the leading candidate.

"I would expect if [Schmoke] gets in, he's the front runner," said Brad Coker, president of Mason Dixon Political Media Research in Columbia. "Clearly Schmoke's the best known among all voters."

But for others, Mr. Schmoke was viewed as just another good candidate in a field of respected entries.

"It's a real horse race," said Herb Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College who does polls for WBAL. "Pollster's heaven."

If Mr. Schmoke decides to run, he would be the first black candidate for governor of Maryland in memory. If he wins, he would become only the second elected black governor in the country, after Virginia's L. Douglas Wilder.

"Schmoke and his apparatchiks are looking at the landscape and seeing there are three white candidates in the race and see they could step in," said political columnist Frank DeFilippo.

A Mason Dixon poll of 825 likely voters taken in December 1991 found Mr. Schmoke with substantially better name recognition and a more favorable rating than such leading Democratic candidates as Mr. Steinberg, Mr. Curran and Mr. Glendening.

Mr. Coker said that in addition to a strong base in Baltimore, the mayor would pick up a wealth of support in Prince George's County, with its high concentration of black voters, hurting Mr. Glendening, who has strong support among African-Americans.

Despite his name recognition, Mr. Schmoke's entry into the race would not be without political difficulties. Incumbents could easily take advantage of his interest in decriminalizing drugs. And they could point to problems the city continues to wrestle with -- including a controversy over public housing, violent crime rates and troubled schools.

Still, Mr. Smith said, "he'd be a serious candidate. Anybody can win the Democratic primary. . . . There's no 800-pound gorilla. They all have support. They all have money."

Clarke's reaction

Mr. Schmoke's remarks started talk at City Hall as well as in the State House.

Council President Clarke said she hadn't known of his interest until an aide slipped her a note during a hearing to tell her what the mayor was saying in Annapolis.

"I think he'd be a very strong candidate," she said. "I think he's one of the best recognized public officials in the entire state.

"It's an interesting prospect for Baltimore from the perspective of the State House as well as my own perspective," she said.

Another interesting prospect for the city is the next political step of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who cannot serve a third term and still pines for the job he held for 15 years: mayor of Baltimore.

One State House observer yesterday said that as recently as two weeks ago Mr. Schaefer was telling delegates he'd like to run again for mayor. The governor is no fan of Mr. Schmoke and is said to rail privately against the job Mr. Schmoke is doing.

Mr. Schaefer, however, was having none of the discussion yesterday.

Asked for his reaction, the governor said, "If you reporters would understand one thing: The important announcement is the Convention Center. . . . Nothing should deviate from the important issue of the economic survival of the city of Baltimore." He then briskly walked away.

Going public

Only two months ago, Mr. Schmoke's chief political adviser, Larry Gibson, told a reporter that Mr. Schmoke was not interested in becoming governor.

But yesterday it was clear something had changed.

"I knew he was bouncing the idea around," said Clint Coleman, Mr. Schmoke's press secretary. "I didn't know he intended to go public."

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