Schmoke decision leaves insiders scratching heads Did prospect of losing unnerve mayor?

September 22, 1993|By Michael A. Fletcher and C. Fraser Smith | Michael A. Fletcher and C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writers Staff writers William F. Zorzi Jr. and John W. Frece contributed to this article.

It is rare that a politician with star appeal, a crack political organization, fund-raising muscle and, most important, a healthy lead in the polls walks away from a race for the most powerful office in the state.

As Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke himself said yesterday, he could remain mayor of Baltimore while he ran for governor. He also has a record of running well-organized campaigns that raise lots of money. In short, he had a great shot at winning the thing.

So why did Mr. Schmoke bow out of the 1994 race for governor?

Speculation abounded yesterday, with some political insiders saying that the mayor couldn't figure out why he wanted to be governor and others saying he was afraid of losing. Other theories included the mayor's desire to be a U.S. senator and his concern about his legacy as mayor.

The mayor and his close circle of political advisers said simply that he wanted to finish the work he started in Baltimore.

After a somewhat-rocky first term, Mr. Schmoke seems to be building an administration that is poised to make progress. And if he ran for governor, that momentum would be lost.

"I think he was very, very concerned with making progress and not getting off track," said Daniel P. Henson III, the city's housing commissioner and longtime confidant of Mr. Schmoke. "If he is running for governor there are people in the bureaucracy who would start running for cover. Also, there would be some ambiguity about who is in charge and who is going to be in charge."

Mr. Schmoke said he was concerned that the next mayor would not provide the leadership needed to keep initiatives started during his administration in motion. Among them are the city's experiment in school privatization, the housing and social initiatives in Sandtown-Winchester, and several projects around the Inner Harbor.

Those initiatives could be terminated by a mayor who did not support them. And Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who would have automatically filled out the remainder of Mr. Schmoke's term if he were elected governor, has opposed many of those ideas. And if she scuttled them, what would be Mr. Schmoke's legacy?

Another concern Mr. Schmoke had was what he would do if he were elected governor. Throughout his exploratory campaign, the mayor said his decision would turn on three factors: political, personal and policy.

The first two, he said, were in place. His polling convinced him that he could win, taking care of the political. And his family, while initially voicing some logistical concerns, had given him the green light to run. That satisfied his personal concerns.

But he never fully developed his rationale for wanting to be governor. And that left the policy question open.

"It's fair to say he couldn't give you 'Kurt Schmoke's Top 10 List of Things To Do As Governor,' " said Del. Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's.

"I'm not so sure if he satisfactorily answered the question" of why he wanted to run, Mr. Henson added. "He also probably did not know whether he would be happy doing it."

At one meeting with Democratic leaders in Montgomery County -- a county that, more than others in the state, is suspicious of Baltimore -- Mr. Schmoke was hit by a fusillade of questions. The would-be candidate said he was surprised to be so sharply challenged.

Larry S. Gibson, Mr. Schmoke's campaign chairman, acknowledged that the mayor was still crafting his vision for Maryland. But he felt that the mayor "was well on his way to developing a game plan. But it was an ongoing process."

Many political insiders could not fathom the mayor walking away from a race he had a good shot of winning.

And they speculated that Mr. Schmoke got out of the race because he knew he would lose.

While he was a prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic nomination in a crowded race, they said Mr. Schmoke would have a hard time beating a moderate Republican with strong suburban appeal, like Robert R. Neall, the Anne Arundel County executive in the race. And a loss could tarnish Mr. Schmoke's luster.

"I think he looked at the polls he spent lots and lots of money on and felt he couldn't win the general election," said Carol Arscott, an aide to Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a GOP candidate for governor.

Mr. Maloney went further. "I think he was worried he would win the primary, get his butt kicked in the general, and then come back to Baltimore weakened," he said.

The mayor's supporters laughed off that scenario.

"The time for him to worry about losing was in 1982, when we ran for state's attorney and we had to spell out his name to people," Mr. Henson said.

Others said that in his heart of hearts, Mr. Schmoke wants to be a U.S. senator. So why risk losing a race for governor? Why not stay out, improve his record as mayor, and hope the right opportunity for a Senate seat would arise?

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