How Schmoke Overcame Severn Fever

BRUCE L. BORTZ

September 22, 1993|By BRUCE L. BORTZ

Kurt L. Schmoke, the emerging politician, is still figuring out who he is. By deciding to forgo a gubernatorial bid in 1994 he's shown himself to be his own man, outside the control of all those mentors who had strongly encouraged him to run for governor.

The mayor now finds himself in his best position ever to help the city; he's got a friend in the White House whom he helped elect, and, suddenly, one in the Governor's Mansion, too, with whom he's negotiated an improbable rapprochement. Maryland Democrats will be loath to beat up on his city during their gubernatorial campaigns. If committed to delivering the city to one or another Democrat, or exercising a benign neutrality, the mayor can well become 1994's Democratic kingmaker.

During six months of contemplating a Democratic gubernatorial bid, Mr. Schmoke was certainly testing the political waters. More fundamentally, he was testing himself. Over the summer, as a potential candidate, he seemed slightly uncertain. Lacking automatic answers to the usual questions, he sometimes sounded as if there was no core there, and that he knew it.

He rediscovered, too, his first love -- the city -- and new reasons for getting good things done there fairly quickly. In a few more years as mayor, he apparently figured, a raft of projects -- from Sandtown to the Tesseract experiment -- would be approaching completion, or at least measurable success that would create the political perception that the mayor was guiding the city in the right direction.

Not only would a year of grueling campaigning potentially put a hold on the very projects needing to move ahead, but being a gubernatorial hopeful promised to be no fun. In firmly announcing his desire to run again for mayor in 1995, it seems accurate for the first time to use ''Mayor Schmoke'' and ''fire in the belly'' in the same sentence.

With five notable exceptions If the mayor sticks around, he can reap the credit for a raft of projects (three Republicans running for governor, a governor who would love to be mayor again, and a city council president who jumped early into the Baltimore mayor's race), it's hard to pinpoint any losers from Monday's announcement.

Parris Glendening got the happiest news imaginable: the

greatest threat to his potential race for governor, Mr. Schmoke, has put himself on the sidelines. The Prince George's County executive now can consolidate a major portion of his voter base -- blacks in his home county -- and broaden his reach to middle-class, educated, business-minded voters in Baltimore and throughout the state. In the next month, look for him to meet face-to-face with Mr. Schmoke to discuss issues. Without offering the mayor any deals, he will certainly be assuring him that in Mr. Glendening the city will have a friend as governor.

Lt. Governor Melvin ''Mickey'' Steinberg profits least. Though the lieutenant governor becomes the sole Baltimore-area Democrat in the race, city voters didn't figure big in his calculations for next September. His pablum Monday about ''voters electing the best qualified candidate'' allowed Mr. Glendening to begin defining him as the upholder of the not-so-wonderful status quo.

The candidacy of state Sen. Mary Boergers, D-Montgomery, should not be underestimated. In a streamlined field of three, she is the sole Democratic woman running. Detractors say that Mrs. Boergers is not loved by city legislators, or by all Montgomery County residents, and that she won't automatically get the biggest chunk of Democratic female voters just because she's a woman. But she's intense, tough and well-organized. Backed by impressive outside consultants, she carries a message that bespeaks a solid grasp of the issues. If she can raise early money, particularly from women, she can make a real run.

The mayor gains the most. He and his allies will say, and probably believe, that they passed up a winning election to stay mayor. But no politicians pass up sure things. Mr. Schmoke's record as mayor would have been the chief issue in both primary and general election. Needle exchanges, decriminalization of drugs, crime and education all would have thrown him on the defensive. The Reagan-like question would have come up: ''Is the city better off than when Mr. Schmoke took over six years ago?'' Few voters, in the city or elsewhere, could have said ''yes.''

Indeed, Mr. Schmoke had become the Republicans' not-so-secret favorite Democratic opponent for 1994. Don't be surprised when GOP Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley, lacking the mayor to run against, bows out, too.

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