Schmoke takes the arrows again


March 17, 1993|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

Trial balloons can have a down side even when they're headed up.

You could ask Kurt L. Schmoke. After saying he might run for governor in 1994, the 43-year-old mayor almost immediately found himself on the defensive.

A poll showed him with double the statewide name recognition of his likely rivals. He had a good ratio of positive-to-negative perceptions among those who knew him. Some commentators saw great potential.

But others scoffed.

"There have been some pointed comments that have made me a take a critical look at myself," he said during an interview yesterday.

Now he must find a way to assess the pluses and minuses of these reactions, not always the most pleasant aspect of a political life.

"Even though I've been in this business over a decade, I still have to toughen up a bit when I read the bad press and get the critical letters," he concedes.

Mr. Schmoke's availability to the press, in fact, has been limited until lately. Now, as he steps into the gubernatorial fray, he offers weekly briefings.

When he does talk to reporters, though, he has been more candid about his record than public figures customarily like to be. Yesterday he said he agrees with at least one criticism raised anew by his new focus on Annapolis.

His decisions to hire Richard C. Hunter as school superintendent and to stick with him after problems arose may have "prevented me from moving forward and left us marking time." But breaking Dr. Hunter's contract and fighting in court, he said, would have been disruptive to the city and he chose to avoid that.

"I will point to things we did do that made some progress, but I would have to admit that on balance that hire was not a good call," he said.

Similarly, Robert W. Hearn, former head of the Department of Housing and Community Development, was criticized for an array of alleged shortcomings, including failing to take advantage of millions of dollars in federal aid.

Again, Mr. Schmoke stayed with his man -- and would have continued to do so except for severe problems in the public housing program. That situation demanded "a new style, and new leadership," he said. So, a new director was hired just as Mr. Schmoke was starting to consider a race for governor.

Critics have credited him with solid fiscal management -- sort of.

"They kind of discount it. 'At best,' they say, 'he's managed the city well.' " He laughs as if to say, What else is there? "We've been able to navigate the city through tough economic times and a major transition in federal-city relations.

"In my first two years I spoke a lot about the loss of funds, but after that, even to me, it began to sound a little whiny. I just have to play the hand that's dealt me."

He's playing the cards in his turn toward the governorship. Inside players had thought of him as a candidate for U.S. Senate.

"So did I," he said a bit ruefully yesterday. If Paul S. Sarbanes were not running for re-election, he would have been a Senate candidate. But he said he does not think people will see him as a rank opportunist, running for governor because the Senate is not available.

And he had to act because others who are committed to the race are out in search of workers and contributors. He wanted to ask potential supporters to remain neutral while he assesses his prospects.

The trial period will serve a broader purpose. He can address issues he knows will arise in a campaign, primarily his suggestion that America needs a new model for dealing with drug abuse. Decriminalization, he calls it, seeking a public health model that promises more than incarceration.

The issue was a non-starter in the city when he ran for re-election. But, statewide, he needs time to clarify his stand before the race begins.

"As nice as everyone is, there's always the potential for the race to be a down and dirty thing."

If he does run, he said, "I think I can come in with a progressive, pragmatic philosophy that won't be easy to pigeonhole but will be good for the state in the '90s." Mr. Schmoke is trying to win approval for a $150 million expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center, among other glamorous projects, but his job approval comes down to things like snow removal. He was praised during a meeting of the Baltimore legislative delegation this week for aggressive snow removal.

But while some applauded, Del. Margaret H. Murphy eyed him stonily.

"All politics are local," he said. "Her street hadn't been plowed."

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