Schmoke Signals

DANIEL BERGER

April 10, 1993|By DANIEL BERGER

Mayor Schmoke is the ideal candidate for lieutenant governor. He would balance the ticket of a gubernatorial nominee, geographically, racially and generationally. He would be the first black official elected statewide in a state that is one-fourth black. It's about time.

And he is young enough, at 43, that the job is not beneath him. It would burnish his statewide recognition in a tax-paid, four-year campaign for governor or senator (whichever opened up without a Democratic incumbent first).

There is one catch, which explains why this perfect scenario is unlikely to happen. Nobody runs for lieutenant governor. They make noises about running for governor, then get bought off with second place on a ticket.

And there is almost no way -- as seen this early in the game -- that Mr. Schmoke can enter the Democratic primary for governor in 1994 without winning it. A candidate approaching the contest with 31 percent of the vote in opinion polls does not take second place on the ticket of someone with 10 percent.

By announcing his interest, Mr. Schmoke made himself and his political mentor, Larry Gibson, far more important in statewide politics for the coming year than they were the day before. That is reason enough to have done it.

More people in the Washington suburbs seem able to identify the mayor of Baltimore than the lieutenant governor or attorney general of Maryland. In a crowded field of good candidates, Mr. Schmoke's urban, generational, liberal and racial characteristics stand out as strengths.

Someone may argue that Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg is far better equipped than Mr. Schmoke to get anything done in state government.

And that Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. has earned more liberal credentials, when it really took courage, than Mr. Schmoke has dreamed of.

And that Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening represents the new generation of elected officials with a firmer grounding than Mr. Schmoke.

True, all true. But Mr. Schmoke stands to whup them all in a Democratic primary, providing they all stay in and split the white vote, of which he would get his full share.

Mr. Steinberg is seen in the Washington suburbs, if at all, as a stereotypical Baltimore pol, guilty of association with the governor who refuses to associate with him.

Mr. Curran is seen as another clubhouse pol who was always there. Their achievements are hidden behind timeworn facades.

Mr. Glendening is hardly known in Metropolitan Baltimore or for that matter in Montgomery County, and cannot count on undivided backing in his home county.

From a partisan perspective, the trouble with Mr. Schmoke as the candidate most likely to win the primary is that he is also the least likely to win the general election.

Should the Republicans put up a better nominee than usual, one of whom most Marylanders have actually heard and could imagine as governor, Mr. Schmoke the presidential friend might do something he has never done before: lose.

Mr. Curran or Mr. Steinberg, given the nomination and the usual pots of money and assistance, probably would not.

In the general election against one major opponent, Mr. Schmoke would encounter voter resistance to his city, his race, his youth and his advocacy of drug decriminalization -- even allegations that he is a disappointment as mayor.

His announcement of interest in the job excited Republicans, touching off new rumors in behalf of credible politicians as diverse as Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall and Rep. Helen D. Bentley.

For either to beat a Schmoke nomination would take much money and a strong ticket, both of which might be arranged. The Republicans have their best shot at the governorship since Baltimore County Executive Spiro T. Agnew won it in 1966.

A couple of caveats: One is that the little Republican primary is so quirky that no planner can count on the correct candidate winning it.

The other is that even the best Republican nominee would have only a chance to beat the Baltimore mayor, no certainty. Mr. Schmoke might well win.

In short, Mr. Schmoke is in grave peril of becoming governor. He better not maintain this posture unless he is really prepared to do the job.

Look at what happened when he expressed interest in running for mayor.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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