Political Jockeying at City Council

February 26, 1993

The 18-member Baltimore's City Council -- which saw nearly one-fifth of its membership change in the 1991 municipal elections -- will not reach its mid-term point for another 10 months. But its work is increasingly being affected by a fierce rivalry between Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, which in turn is encouraging political jockeying by individual council members.

Tensions have existed between Mr. Schmoke and Ms. Clarke for most of the five years the two have been top officials at City Hall. Until recently, a formalized rift was avoided because Ms. Clarke felt she could never launch a mayoral campaign against Mr. Schmoke. She is now re-evaluating her stand, according to supporters.

The election may be three years away but the possibility of the city's No. 2 job opening up is a prospect ambitious office holders find exciting. Two examples: East Baltimore's Councilman Carl Stokes, who garnered much publicity mileage in the recent Norplant birth-control hearings, does not deny his interest in the council president's office. Another councilman who is restlessly scouting the landscape is South Baltimore's Joseph DiBlasi, who is wondering whether he should go for a Senate seat or try for a citywide office. He could conceivably do both (or neither) because the state election and city contest are held a year apart.

The Schmoke-Clarke tensions and internal political jockeying threaten to divert the council's attention from more immediate matters, such as trying to deal with budget questions in an intelligent fashion. Or increasing the council's pathetic oversight role of the city's problem-plagued Housing Authority and housing department, the police department and public schools.

Instead of focusing on critical policy issues, council members are getting distracted by petty political issues of the day.

This would be lamentable at any time. It is particularly so now because the reconstituted council got off to a pretty good start more than a year ago. Indeed, the council's most significant action so far -- a sweeping incinerator ban -- was essentially engineered by novice members, who skillfully built such a potent coalition that even the mayor had to alter his position.

The danger now is that the Schmoke-Clarke tensions and council members' political jockeying will create so much distrust that the city's legislative body will lose its effectiveness because every action will be scrutinized for ulterior motives.

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