Governor '94 II: Schmoke Missess an Opportunity

PETER A. JAY

June 06, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- The last time I ventured to write about the political ambitions of Kurt Schmoke, the mayor of Baltimore, I suggested that if he played his cards right he would have a good chance of being elected governor of Maryland.

In the mail that column elicited was a letter from a reader up ithe hills along the Mason-Dixon line, informing me with just a touch of exasperation that I didn't have a clue what I was talking about. Stick to writing what you know about, he suggested kindly. When you do that, you're not so bad. I don't mind what you have to say about your children, or soybeans. But can't you see that Schmoke would do to Maryland just what he's done to Baltimore?

This is of course a widely-shared opinion, especially in rurasections of the state. It's reinforced by a seething animosity toward Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who is turning out to be the most unpopular and derided Maryland chief executive since William Preston Lane. The idea of replacing Mr. Schaefer with another Baltimore mayor, no matter how much their policies and personalities might differ, seems absolutely ludicrous to a lot of non-metropolitan people.

That kind of prejudice can be brushed off by Mr. Schmoke along as he wants to remain mayor, but if he is to be a statewide candidate, it becomes politically significant. He might not have to overcome it, but he probably can't afford to ignore it. Even in the Democratic primary, he'll need the votes of some of those hard-eyed characters up in the hills.

Until recently, it appeared that he had a good chance to gethem, too. He may be the mayor of Baltimore, but he isn't Mr. Schaefer. He's a bright man, with a genuine interest in new ideas, and without the great weight of special-interest baggage that makes most of the other Democratic candidates so unappealing.

Those qualities plus 69 cents are only worth a fresh cup of coffeat the 7-Eleven, but they were a good beginning. To build on them, to make a Schmoke candidacy catch the imagination of the state, the mayor had to show he wasn't just another garden-variety urban Democrat.

Sure, he was a Rhodes Scholar. Sure, he's a Friend of Bill. (Whaven't heard much about that lately, for some reason.) But to give him credibility up in the hills and beyond the Beltway, he needed to do something both sensible and surprising. Then a perfect opportunity presented itself, and he let it slip away.

In politics, you can't usually win new friends without irritating olones. In ordering that new Baltimore municipal workers must be city residents, the mayor pleased his traditional constituencies and pretty well wrote off any new ones. Frankly, I was disappointed, but I'm sure my upcountry correspondent and others like him are doubly delighted. It confirms their prejudices, and it indicates that Mr. Schmoke's campaign will be pretty ordinary after all.

The issue of residency requirements for government employeecomes up again and again, in city after city, and it's interesting because it defines so sharply two contrasting views of public service.

One view, the traditional urban Democratic perspective, is thacity jobs represent benefits. They are a benefit to the employee, and his or her family. They are a benefit to politicians who can take credit for them. And they are a benefit to political organizations, who use them, with or without the merit-system fig leaf, for patronage purposes.

Naturally enough, city politicians and the political organizationto which they belong favor steadily increasing these benefits and keeping them in the city through residency requirements. When the city is racially or economically distinct from the suburbs surrounding it, this position gets strong emotional reinforcement.

A quite different view is that city jobs represent primarilservices. If that's the case, it isn't important where city workers live. What matters is the quality of work they do, and the amount it costs the taxpayer. If you can get better workers, or less expensive ones, by hiring long-distance commuters, then why not hire them?

If Mr. Schmoke had publicly embraced this second philosophyrejecting residency requirements with a strong message about the importance of Baltimore's being free to hire the best, it would have sent a clear signal about his own political independence. His failure to do so can have only two explanations.

One is that he truly believes it's best for Baltimore to shackle itwork force within the city limits. If that's the case, perhaps his own career future really does lie with the Clinton administration, which seems to share the view that the more restraints government puts on people the better the world will work.

More likely, though, Mr. Schmoke simply doesn't have the kind oautonomy within his own core constituency that some of us had thought. Even if he'd wanted to oppose residency requirements, that would have been just too heretical for his handlers to allow. He's a valuable property, and I guess they have to keep him on a fairly short leash.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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