Mr. Schmoke decides to stay home

Frank A. DeFilippo

September 23, 1993|By Frank A. DeFilippo

MAYOR Kurt Schmoke's commitment to continue festooning Baltimore with municipal baubles is a laudable goal but surely not the singular motive for his pull-back from the race for governor.

Nonetheless, the Baltimore Democrat's march up the hill and back again dramatically alters the lifescape of the Democratic contest at the same time it gives Republicans something to chew on.

To begin with, Mr. Schmoke was faced with two simple stratagems. In a broad field of primary election candidates, Mr. Schmoke could have run on race and resume. But in a field of a few candidates, he'd be forced to defend his record. Early polls, usually nothing more than a test of name recognition, made Mr. Schmoke the front-runner.

Thus with, say, four or five candidates competing in the primary, Mr. Schmoke might have won with 20 to 25 percent of the vote (in a state that's 25 percent black) and in Montgomery County, where education is an article of faith and there are more Ph.D.'s per square mile than at Johns Hopkins. Mr. Schmoke wears the stripes of City College, Yale, Harvard and Oxford.

But with the withdrawal of Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., and with Dr. Neil Solomon in the legal fight of his life, the lineup of candidates suddenly began to shrink and the percentage of votes Mr. Schmoke would need began to rise in inverse proportion.

Moreover, if Mr. Schmoke had formally entered the Democratic primary for governor, he would have become a national, if not worldwide, media phenomenon not only because he's black, but also because of his controversial positions on drugs and drug-abuse treatment.

And still hanging in the political air is the message that the Schmoke administration has been soft on high-level drug dealers. In addition, a number of black officials lately have been critical of Mr. Schmoke's leadership.

So with his record as state's attorney and mayor in full view and his single-minded determination to decriminalize drugs out front, the question was whether Mr. Schmoke could -- or would want to -- withstand the scrutiny and critical examination that would follow the hordes of out-of-town reporters who would have flocked to Maryland for the 1994 gubernatorial roadshow.

There is, too, the consideration that Mr. Schmoke was dead-set against relinquishing City Hall to his arch-rival for power, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who's already announced she's running for mayor in 1995, Mr. Schmoke or no Mr. Schmoke.

When the mayor walked away from the race, he left behind a flat-out Baltimore-Washington, urban-suburban contest for governor and a shrinking list of candidates that's now been reduced to Lt. Gov. Melvin ("Mickey") Steinberg, of Baltimore County, Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening and Sen. Mary Boergers, D-Montgomery. And Ms. Boergers' staying power is in serious question by most political rubberneckers. For his part, Mr. Glendening says he's interested solely in being governor and will not accept the second slot as lieutenant governor on anyone's ticket.

Moreover, Mr. Schmoke's backtracking left Republican candidates and party leaders slack-jawed. For months they'd been drooling over the prospect of a city-suburban (translate black-white) general election contest for governor. Now even that has vanished, and Republicans may have lost their best chance to capture the governorship since 1966.

But the GOP hierarchs have internal party problems as well. They've been unable to resolve the destructive difficulty of having too many candidates. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd, won't say whether she will or won't. Anne Arundel County Executive Robert Neall, clearly fed up with his present assignment, formed an exploratory committee last week. Del. Ellen Sauerbrey, the House minority leader from Baltimore County, says she's in for the long haul. And William Shepard, the retired diplomat from Montgomery County, says he's running, come high water or hell. And why not? In his maiden run in 1990, Mr. Shepard collected 40 percent of the vote against Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

A week ago Ms. Bentley convened a meeting of all GOP candidates and party leaders to try to sort out the problem. But in the end, nothing was settled. Ms. Bentley listened to the others but said nothing about her own plans.

Meantime, Mr. Schmoke's departure also throws competing Democrats into a tizzy. For example, Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller is said to be searching frantically for another candidate to replace Mr. Schmoke so he can blunt the effort of his political enemy, Mr. Glendening.

And Mr. Schmoke's withdrawal has once again brought the name of Donald P. Hutchinson to the forefront as a prospective candidate. However, the former Baltimore County executive is about to begin a new job as head of the Greater Baltimore Committee, his only source of income. All of the other candidates would be able to stay on the public payroll throughout the campaign.

So with Mr. Schmoke's withdrawal, the race for governor is still very much unsettled and wide open in both parties.

MA What future for Mr. Schmoke? As the mayor says, he's only 43.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes here on Maryland politics.

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