How Schmoke Could Be a Strong Candidate GOVERNOR 1994

PETER A. JAY

March 07, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- The gas, such as it was, seems to hav seeped out of the Bill Brock trial balloon. The responses of Marylanders to the news that a one-term U.S. Senator from Tennessee might like to be their governor ranged from snickers to weary snores.

Every couple of years lately, some federal-government retread turns up on our doorsteps wanting to represent us. Mostly these people have been Republicans, and although they invariably get sent packing, their campaigns are tedious and embarrassing.

What did we do to deserve this nonsense? Nothing, really. It's just part of the price we pay for the neighborhood we now live in.

If the national capital could be suddenly moved to the Mojave Desert, many of the instant Marylanders who infest our politics would be gone in an instant. They'd be out inspecting Congressional opportunities in Nevada, and rediscovering their deep intellectual interest in regional issues of the Southwest.

But the capital's going nowhere, and the Washington suburbs will continue to overflow with ambitious wonks and wonkettes desperate for a political career -- as long as it's within commuting distance. So Maryland voters will just have to keep picking off these parasites one at a time, like ticks.

Mr. Brock's election to the Senate, in which he upset Albert Gore Sr., came in 1970. As it happened, that was another year in which an outsider contemplated entering Maryland politics.

In 1970, Marvin Mandel had been governor for a year. In January 1969, he had been chosen by the General Assembly, where he was speaker of the House of Delegates, to replace Spiro Agnew, just elected vice president of the United States. Mr. Mandel was politically powerful but not well known to the voters.

Some anti-Mandel Democrats tried to persuade Sargent Shriver, the late President Kennedy's brother-in-law, to enter the Democratic primary. Mr. Shriver lived in Montgomery County and came from a Maryland family, but he was still very much a Washington man. He had headed the Peace Corps and subsequently served as ambassador to France.

He would have liked to be governor, and might well have been elected had he plunged vigorously into the race. But Mr. Mandel had already lined up the big contributors and the political heavyweights, and Mr. Shriver lost his nerve and backed out. Two years later, perhaps to prove he wasn't a wimp after all, he ran for vice president on a ticket with George McGovern. Compared to that debacle, a campaign against Mr. Mandel would have been a breeze.

In 1994, there will be no incumbent Marvin Mandel in the ranks of would-be governors, and there will be no outsider with the national stature of a Sargent Shriver. Among the Democrats seeking to succeed William Donald Schaefer, there will be only a Mickey Steinberg, a Parris Glendening, a Joe Curran . . . and a Kurt Schmoke.

The recent expression of interest by the Mayor of Baltimore in the governorship of Maryland came as a surprise, perhaps, but it made sense. In fact, it made so much sense it's hard to see why it was such a surprise. When Mayor Schmoke opened the door to a race for governor, it made him the instant front-runner.

This is so not because he is the only black candidate, though it's fair to say that if he were white his chances would be significantly less promising. His real strength, in addition to a pleasant personality miraculously undamaged by the polishing of Yale and Harvard and Oxford, is the opportunity to run a genuinely independent campaign. No other Democrat now in sight can do this as credibly.

The challenge for Mr. Schmoke, if he does become a candidate, will be to address the concerns of the many Marylanders who have lost confidence in their state government's ability to operate within its means. If he runs as the smart candidate, and the tough-minded candidate, he can win. If he runs as the black candidate, or the limousine liberal candidate, he will lose.

If he wants to be governor, he needs to start showing his wares now, as mayor, with a resolve he hasn't yet demonstrated consistently. The key issues in Baltimore are crime and education; deal with those, and an economic turnaround will follow. On those matters, Mr. Schmoke has said and done some useful things. He needs to do more.

Maryland voters are savvy people. They know Baltimore is a basket case, and they also know that's not the fault of the mayor. But they will judge the mayor, especially if he seeks to be governor, on the progress he's made. That progress has been disappointing over the last six years, but there's still time to do more.

If, on the other hand, Mayor Schmoke coasts into 1994; if he tries to campaign on his Rhodes Scholarship and his personal friendship with President Clinton and the First Partner; if he talks about "fairness" when he means higher taxes; if he tries to keep traditional Democratic interest groups on his side no matter what it costs -- then he won't be elected.

If he runs right, in other words, he'll win, but if he runs left, even the feeble Maryland Republicans should be able to stop him. Though not, needless to say, with the likes of Bill Brock.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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