The Schmoke bluff

Bruce L. Bortz

March 11, 1993|By Bruce L. Bortz

MAYOR Kurt L. Schmoke caused quite a stir a couple of weeks ago when he let it be known, quite intentionally, that he was considering a race for governor in 1994. It gave everyone a chance to take note and discuss. The pundits loved it; so did the pollsters. It's great to see a race become so interesting so early.

Was Mr. Schmoke bluffing? Most likely. Do most politicians think he was bluffing? Probably not. In their minds, the mayor's entry in the race is quite plausible. It's a wide-open contest this time. No 800-pound gorillas; William Donald Schaefer cannot succeed himself. Mr. Schmoke could run without real risk. Even if he lost, he'd still be mayor.

But despite good showing in the early polls, a Schmoke victory is far from a sure thing. Ironically, the mayor's chief liability is that he's from Baltimore City -- one of the things for which Mr. Schaefer will be remembered.

In the Maryland history books, as in many Marylanders' minds, the Schaefer years in Annapolis will be remembered this way: "The former Baltimore mayor was a very activist governor who favored his old city through controversial building projects like a baseball stadium, a new light rail system and convention center expansion . . ." There's much more to Mr. Schaefer than that, of course, but as columnist and author Garry Wills has pointed out, if presidents or governors make a mark, it's usually encapsulated in a single sentence: "He reorganized state government." "He got the sales tax increased." And historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. notes that political philosophies -- activism, conservatism, regionalism, nationalism -- stay in fashion for a time. But then, when they fail to work to everyone's satisfaction, the pendulum swings.

If these two observers are right (and Mr. Wills is a former Baltimorean), the next Maryland governor most likely won't be from Baltimore, and he or she won't be a master builder. When you look at the tumultuous Schaefer years, and look at the latest poll showing just 17 percent of Maryland voters support expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center, you can safely predict an era of anti-city feeling.

Because of his clear connection to Baltimore, Mr. Schmoke gets disqualified as a true gubernatorial front-runner. Also ruled out is Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. Though he's run (and won) statewide campaigns and has taken strong populist stands (against keno, against Blue Cross/Blue Shield executive excesses), Mr. Curran won't be able to erase his city brand. Neither will Lt. Gov. Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg, though he's really from Baltimore County. Mr. Steinberg is still a Baltimore pol. Disqualified candidate number three.

On the Democratic side, th at leaves Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening. Of all those mentioned as a Democratic candidate, he's the only one likely to get solid, even unified support from his home base -- the heavy-voting Washington suburbs that could be key in the 1994 race.

All of this should augur well for Republicans, but it doesn't. Three of the possibles meet our criterion -- non-Baltimore identification -- but two won't run, and the third has a major cross to bear. Largely for personal reasons, Anne Arundel County Executive Robert Neall seems unlikely to jump in. Rep. Connie Morella, from Montgomery County, routinely wins Democratic votes, can raise the necessary money, is a former state legislator and has a winning personality. But she probably won't give up her safe seat for an uncertain future in Annapolis. Montgomery County's Bill Shepard, who ran for governor in 1990, is more credible this time, with a message that'll sound very much like "I told you so." But Maryland voters have shown a strong reluctance to elect non-office-holders to major political positions.

Kurt Schmoke may not want to be governor. But that's beside the point. Staying out of a race he could run has real bargaining value. And he knows it. In the 1992 presidential primary, Mr. Schmoke successfully played power broker, climbing out on a limb for Bill Clinton when Paul Tsongas was riding high in Maryland.

In the general election, Mr. Schmoke and his top adviser, Larry Gibson, helped pull off a thumping Clinton victory. The mayor is now being amply rewarded for his political daring-do; President Clinton has given him big-time access, a prominent profile as spokesman for American cities and the likelihood of special financial consideration for Baltimore.

By agreeing to deliver the city for Mr. Glendening in 1994, and helping out statewide, Mr. Schmoke could be the county executive's kingmaker. This would make him eligible for a payoff similar to the one he's getting from Mr. Clinton. A spot on the Glendening ticket as attorney general for Schmoke friend and protege Stu Simms is a possibility. So are commitments on General Assembly leadership positions and cabinet spots. In fact, there are plenty of things Mr. Schmoke could ask for, and get.

Mr. Glendening has been wooing Mr. Schmoke for months. Ultimately, the former will want to close the deal. But by indicating his own possible interest in running, the mayor has raised the ante. And he's learned his lessons well. When he needed to in his 16 years as mayor, Mr. Schmoke's predecessor threatened to run for governor. By imitating Mr. Schaefer, Kurt Schmoke has become a major player in the 1994 election whether or not he actually runs.

Bruce L. Bortz is editor of the Maryland Report newsletter. He writes here every other Thursday on Maryland politics.

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