Governor Schmoke? Think Again, Mr. Mayor

BARRY RASCOVAR

June 20, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Kurt Schmoke, governor. Has a nice ring to it. At this stage it looks like a breeze. But initial appearances can be deceiving -- very deceiving.

There's little doubt Mayor Schmoke is positioning himself for such a race. He dropped a controversial lawsuit he wanted the city to file against the state to force Annapolis to give Baltimore more school-aid money. That should quiet worried education-minded voters in the counties.

He is making the rounds outside Baltimore, talking to elected officials and groups in Southern Maryland, the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland. The reception has been polite and pleasant.

He's scheduled a big $500-a-ticket fund-raiser for September. And when he spoke Thursday at a breakfast for his financial backers in the local business community, he sounded very much like a man running for higher office.

Meanwhile, polls indicate that were Mr. Schmoke to run for governor, he'd win. Easily. Now he's starting to believe that the field is so weak he'd coast to victory.

The mayor ought to beware: The path to the Governor's Mansion contains quicksand. What looks easy will prove arduous and uphill. In fact, by the time voters make up their minds next year, Mr. Schmoke might be an also-ran.

Polls at this stage are meaningless. They are based on name recognition. At the moment, more folks have heard of the mayor of Baltimore than Parris Glendening or Mickey Steinberg or Joe Curran. (The same false impression occurs in Republican polls, where Rep. Helen Bentley beats all comers -- except Mr. Schmoke -- for governor. But then only these two names are well-known to voters so far.)

Getting a pleasant reception from county audiences can be misleading, too. Most audiences in Maryland are polite to speakers. Mr. Schmoke is an amiable man. He's there to introduce himself, not discuss explosive issues. The reaction to Mr. Schmoke might not be so favorable after a heated campaign for governor.

Mr. Schmoke also has the disadvantage of being a Baltimore mayor when the city stands for all the worst ills of society in the minds of suburbanites and ruralites. Drugs, crime, schools that fail to educate, welfare, unemployment and hundreds of millions of government dollars seemingly pouring into a sinkhole, with no end in sight.

There is the added millstone that the last Baltimore mayor to serve as governor -- the incumbent William Donald Schaefer -- is leaving office as a pariah. Maryland voters seem to have had their fill of city mayors in the State House.

Besides, Mr. Schmoke's support in the city is shaky. He beat Clarence ''Du'' Burns in his first mayoral primary by only 5,333 votes (50.8 percent). Four years later, with weak opponents, he won by 30,613 over an aging Mr. Burns and 19,872 over the combined totals of Mr. Burns and William A. Swisher. Mr. Schmoke's percentage was 57.6 percent -- hardly eye-popping. Equally troubling, he lost 193 precincts to Mr. Burns in 1987 and 208 precincts to Mr. Burns or the combined Burns-Swisher vote in 1991.

Since that last election, Mr. Schmoke's popularity has waned. In a race for governor, the disgruntled home folks might not produce much of a winning total -- especially since Mr. Curran, Mr. Steinberg and Dr. Neil Solomon will deprive Mr. Schmoke of )) big chunks of city votes.

On top of that, any Schmoke campaign would rely heavily on a hefty vote from blacks in Prince George's County, where Mr. Glendening is county executive. But that assumption ignores Mr. Glendening's strong support from middle-class black voters in 1982, 1986 and 1990. These voters have opted for Mr. Glendening over black candidates before, and they are likely to do so again in a race for governor.

Then there's the nagging question: Why would Kurt Schmoke want the job? He has never shown interest in state issues. He's as much an amateur on state government as was Don Schaefer in 1986. Governor Schaefer's unhappy experience couldn't give Mr. Schmoke much reason to want the post.

Some argue that as governor, Mr. Schmoke could prevent an erosion of city aid, pump more dollars into Baltimore and populate the state's top posts with minority appointments. The last item might be true, but not the others. As Mr. Schaefer has discovered, the governor's ability to shift funds and programs to benefit the city is extremely limited without legislative approval. The next legislature, freshly redistricted, may not be friendly to the city.

Governor Schmoke would find himself devoting much of his time to such non-urban issues as finding a way to end the endless depression in Western Maryland, how to manage a bureaucracy three times larger than the city bureaucracy he has trouble running now, how to protect the rockfish and how to get anything important done with a legislature that doesn't want to cooperate.

Finally, there's the Mary Pat problem. If Mr. Schmoke becomes governor, Council President Mary Pat Clarke succeeds him. There would be a housecleaning of Schmoke appointees.

Ms. Clarke's irrational actions -- the most recent being her outrageous behavior in trying to sabotage the medical-waste facility in South Baltimore -- must make the mayor cringe at the idea of turning the city over to her.

When Mr. Schaefer left the mayor's office, he predicted his successors wouldn't have a fun job dealing with problems on the horizon. The same may be the case when Mr. Schaefer leaves the State House. Mr. Schmoke might want to think hard about following in Don Schaefer's footsteps not once but twice.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column on Maryland politics appears here each week.

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