Schmoke moving fast, if not running Mayor tests waters for governor's race

August 15, 1993|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer Staff writer Greg Tasker contributed to this article.

A big smile on his face, his hands reaching out to greet every potential voter in the room, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke looked every bit the candidate as he worked the lobby of a Gaithersburg center for senior citizens.

At the center, deep in Montgomery County, Mr. Schmoke was treated like a movie star. The lady at the front door made sure he signed the visitors' log. People posed for pictures with him. There were audible gasps when he exchanged municipal flags with Gaithersburg Mayor W. Edward Bohrer Jr.

The trip to the senior center last week was followed by quick tours of a transitional housing program, a municipal pool and a residential treatment program for recovering drug addicts.

Since June, Mr. Schmoke has been on the go, visiting every part of the state as he weighs a run for governor next year. In that time, he has made at least nine trips out of Baltimore, visiting places from Salisbury to Hagerstown, to explore his viability as a gubernatorial candidate. He likes what he's hearing.

"I can't say that I have heard anything to discourage me from running," Mr. Schmoke said as he wound up the two-hour visit to Gaithersburg. "This is a very good learning experience and extremely helpful in letting me know what the problems of the state are and what people expect of state government."

Should Mr. Schmoke declare for governor, he would most likely become an immediate front-runner. The reasons are clear: He has high name recognition, a campaign organization that demonstrated statewide reach in helping President Clinton win Maryland impressively in November and well-developed fund-raising muscle.

A poll released this month showed Mr. Schmoke holding a wide lead over his potential Democratic rivals, Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and state Sen. Mary H. Boergers of Montgomery County.

Political analysts point out that poll results more than a year before an election are little more than reflections of name recognition and can change quickly. But still they demonstrate that Mr. Schmoke is known around Maryland.

During his 1991 re-election campaign, Mr. Schmoke raised a little more than $2 million. His organization reported having $132,000 in the bank after the effort -- money that could help fuel a gubernatorial campaign. In addition, the mayor is planning a $500-a-ticket fund-raiser for next month.

"I think we can definitely win the primary and, with some hard work and a well-run campaign, pull through the general election," said Larry S. Gibson, chairman of Mr. Schmoke's campaign committee who also led Mr. Clinton's Maryland campaign.

While acknowledging the promising political signs, Mr. Schmoke has not made a firm decision.

"What I am finding is that there are a lot of issues that I would like to get to know more closely," Mr. Schmoke said. "I will certainly let people know something in the fall. By then, I'll let my supporters know what my intentions are."

He added that any official announcement would come months after that.

Some in the Schmoke camp are privately concerned because, should Mr. Schmoke be elected governor next year, the mayor's job would be inherited by City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, a political rival.

Nevertheless, Mr. Schmoke looks like a man running for office. The day after his visit to Gaithersburg, he toured the Frederick County Detention Center to observe programs that he thinks would be useful in dealing with Maryland's exploding prison population.

During the visit, Mr. Schmoke got a look at the county's work-release and home-detention programs, an inmate-gardening program and a closed-circuit bail review setup.

Later that day, he toured the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, visited a state rehabilitation hospital and had private talks with several Washington County legislators.

"I don't think there is any question that he is running," said Del. Gene W. Counihan, a Montgomery County Democrat who joined Mr. Schmoke's tour of Gaithersburg. "I don't think he would be doing this otherwise."

But Mr. Schmoke will have to overcome several obstacles if he runs for governor. One is the widely held perception that Baltimore has declined since he became mayor in 1987. Once hailed for its urban renaissance, the city is now more widely discussed for its spiraling murder rate and its underfinanced and poorly performing school system.

"I think there is interest in him, but there is also concern," Mr. Counihan said. "Montgomery County has the feeling that its needs have not been understood by the state."

Also, some say that Marylanders are in no mood to elevate a second consecutive mayor of Baltimore to the State House. William Donald Schaefer, who was elected governor in 1986 after 15 years as mayor, has seen his popularity plummet as the bottom fell out of the state's economy.

"I think that only a small group of political insiders talk about this issue of me being mayor of Baltimore" as Mr. Schaefer was, Mr. Schmoke said. "I don't think most voters are concerned about that."

However, during a meeting with some 60 Democratic activists and elected officials in Potomac this month, Mr. Schmoke got a taste of some of the scrutiny he undoubtedly would face during a gubernatorial campaign.

At that gathering, he faced persistent questioning about his support for state education cuts last year that hit hardest in Montgomery. Some saw the cuts as yet another example of Baltimore gaining funds at the expense of wealthy Montgomery.

"I think people understand that as mayor of Baltimore, I have to fight for Baltimore," Mr. Schmoke said. "And as governor, I would fight for the state of Maryland."

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