Suddenly the governor buries the hatchet

Bruce L. Bortz

September 09, 1993|By Bruce L. Bortz

IT WAS a development that made a possible accord between the PLO and Israel look routine.

After seven years as governor, William Donald Schaefer put aside personal rancor and major policy differences to visit his successor as mayor, Kurt L. Schmoke.

Baltimore -- Mr. Schmoke's home turf. With a happy face. With careful orchestration aimed at gaining maximum TV time for both the governor and the mayor. And with a full complement of top-drawer, showcase advisers -- his state economic fTC development chief (Mark Wasserman), the state police chief (Larry Tolliver), and his scheduling chief and key aide (Lainy LeBow-Sachs).

Tuesday's hardly impromptu dog and pony show raised more questions than it answered. The governor offered no apologies for his longtime snubbing of Mr. Schmoke. (The infallible governor doesn't admit personal mistakes.) Looking a bit awkward and uncomfortable in his new role as statesman/peacemaker, Mr. Schaefer simply pretended the past problems had never existed.

Nor did he explain why he'd made a 180-degree turnabout on state police deployment in Baltimore City. Years ago, pointing to a spiraling crime and murder rate, Mayor Schmoke had practically begged for state police. To this reasonable appeal, the governor responded unyieldingly. "The law doesn't allow it," he said. What's changed since then to change his mind? The law didn't. Nor did the situation, even more desperate now than it was then.

Also changed -- and unexplained -- is Mr. Schaefer's view on a city-proposed needle exchange for drug Why'd he do it? Some suggest a death-bed (or lame-duck) conversion.

addicts. Not so long ago, the governor offered no room for compromise on the issue. He didn't support this method of helping AIDS-prone intravenous drug users. It would set a terrible precedent, he asserted. In these sunnier days of his new partnership with the mayor, Governor Schaefer now says he won't oppose such a bill when it comes up for General Assembly approval next session, so long as the pilot project is limited to the city.

Forced to find rationality in the governor's new viewing of Mr. Schmoke eye-to-eye, some suggest something akin to a death-bed (or at least a lame-duck) conversion. With his days as governor numbered, they say, Mr. Schaefer has simply decided to put aside his own stubborn views and do what's best for the city. It's a plausible theory, certainly one that should encourage Baltimoreans.

A more cynical, though just as plausible, explanation is this: There's quid pro quo at work here. The governor offers the city a helping hand; the city, in turn, refrains from filing another costly suit alleging that the state's school aid formula is unconstitutional.

That will help both men when they put together their budgets for next year.

A third theory is that the two men are now intent on trading positions. Mayor Schmoke's pondering of a gubernatorial bid seems more serious with each passing day. Governor Schaefer makes no secret of the fact that he still covets the mayor's chair. The best way to resecure what he terms "the best job in the world" is to get Mr. Schmoke to relinquish it. The best way to do that is to help Mr. Schmoke move up to the Governor's Mansion.

If that's the strategy, it's misguided. A former Baltimore mayor allying himself with the current mayor will not play well in Montgomery County, where Mr. Schmoke will need all the votes he can get. In addition, Tuesday's withdrawal of Attorney General Joe Curran from the governor's race makes Mr. Schmoke's road to Annapolis steeper still.

With fewer Democrats in the race, Mr. Schmoke will find it harder to sweep to victory on the strength of his black voter base.

A mayor looking to go statewide politically can't be faulted for highlighting a new partnership on economic development and crime, the two issues the mayor and governor emphasized Tuesday. They're also issues that could attract votes, unlike decriminalizing drugs or offering needle exchanges.

But Mr. Schmoke has major hurdles to pass if he wants to be governor. He's likable enough but widely considered an incompetent mayor. If political hay can be gathered from the new relationship with the state, it will be difficult for the mayor to take credit for it.

Why the king visited his former fiefdom Tuesday remains perplexing, even after most of the conventional theories are considered. So let's chew on something a bit off the wall. Maybe Rep. Helen Bentley, R-2nd, encouraged him to do it. An influential Schaefer ally who's been considering a bid for governor for more than a year now, she's just dying to tangle with Mr. Schmoke in next year's election.

Bruce L. Bortz is editor of the Maryland Report newsletter. He writes here on alternate Thursdays.

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