Schmoke sees new hope of 'doable' governor's race

ROGER SIMON

June 18, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

For several weeks, one chilling thought has occupied Kurt Schmoke's mind as he has tried to decide whether to run for governor in 1994:

That he would lose because he is black.

No matter what his record, his platform, or his campaign, he feared nothing could overcome his blackness in a state that has a white majority.

This seemed so daunting a barrier, in fact, that Schmoke was seriously considering a June announcement that he would not run.

Now, however, after spending $60,000 on new polling in the past few weeks -- the most Schmoke has ever spent on polling in so short a time -- Schmoke has changed his mind about the effect of race on a statewide campaign.

"Race will be an issue," Schmoke told me in a phone interview Wednesday as he campaigned on the Eastern Shore, "but I now tend to doubt it will be the issue."

A source close to Schmoke, who asked not to be identified, said the new polls had moved Schmoke across an important threshold.

"We now know the contest is winnable," the source said. "It is doable. If we run a careful campaign, he can be the next governor. We are now just waiting for the mayor to decide."

And while Schmoke also said Wednesday he is putting off a final decision until September, that extra time seems geared more to developing a platform to run on than convincing himself to run.

Two factors are at work in Schmoke's decision making: his own instincts as he campaigns (or "pre-campaigns") around the state and the information produced by his number-crunchers.

The number-crunchers believe that the arithmetic is good, that more than 60 percent of the state's voters live in counties that would not automatically be hostile to Schmoke: Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Prince George's County and Montgomery County.

Adding in Howard County and Anne Arundel County as areas where Schmoke also could be expected to win support, that figure rises to about 75 percent.

The Eastern Shore, where some think Schmoke would do poorly against a white Republican, represents only about 8 percent of the electorate. Add in Southern Maryland, and that figure rises only to about 11 percent.

Not that Schmoke is writing off any part of the state. He has already campaigned in Southern Maryland and Western Maryland (where he will return next week) and spent Wednesday in appearances in Denton, Cambridge and Salisbury.

And his spirits have been buoyed by his reception.

"It has really been heartening," he said. "First, my stand on drugs has not gotten the wholesale negative response that I thought it might. There have been a lot of positive signs.

"I am more enthusiastic now about running than before."

One reason Schmoke was not enthusiastic last month was his analysis of the campaign of L. Douglas Wilder, the governor of Virginia, who is also black.

"Wilder had already won statewide office [as lieutenant governor], he was following two popular governors, and the economy of the state was strong when Wilder ran in 1989," Schmoke said. "And yet he won by only about 6,000 votes out of 1.7 million cast."

One can look at that result and see the glass half-empty: Wilder's skin color kept him from winning by a larger margin.

Or one can look at it and see the glass half-full: Wilder nonetheless won and became Virginia's first black governor.

Schmoke had taken the pessimistic view for several weeks and then talked to Wilder about it.

"Governor Wilder advised me that if I did run I should go everywhere and campaign everywhere and make no assumptions about who is going to support me and who is not, black or white," Schmoke said. "That is good advice."

But some people close to Schmoke are advising him against a run for governor in 1994. They point out he is only 43 and can bide his time.

"Is he going to run?" the source said. "It depends on what week you ask him."

So I asked him this week.

"It looks good on the political side," he said. "It is doable. But I have a long way to go on the policy side: I have to decide where I am going to take the state if I do run.

"I am closer to running than before, but this is all very sobering."

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