Schmoke Makes the Right Call

BARRY RASCOVAR

September 26, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR | BARRY RASCOVAR,Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

Give Kurt Schmoke credit. When it came time to make a tough, personal political decision, he used common sense and pragmatism.

Running for governor would have been a disaster. In the end, he realized that. He made a smart strategic move last week in removing himself from the 1994 gubernatorial field and immediately plunging into his 1995 re-election campaign for mayor of Baltimore.

It was a smart move on any number of levels.

From a personal standpoint, Mr. Schmoke wouldn't have enjoyed a run for the governor's mansion. His heart wasn't in it. And it can be grueling.

Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening and Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg have a huge advantage: They've been canvassing the state -- and lining up commitments -- for nearly a year already.

Playing catch-up in a geographically sprawling state like Maryland would prove physically arduous and exceeding difficult especially for someone who knows precious little about what's happening outside Baltimore's city limits.

Besides, why bother? Mr. Schmoke has never harbored any ambitions about running the state. His longtime goal has been the United States Senate.

As governor, Mr. Schmoke would have fallen victim to the Schaefer syndrome. Remember William Donald Schaefer, the popular mayor who ran and won the governorship only to discover he was happier being mayor?

Mr. Schmoke found himself in a similar situation: His only reason for running was because his advisers said he could win. He had no vision of what he wanted to achieve, no experience in state government affairs and no desire to live in the governor's mansion.

Just as Mr. Schaefer is winding up his two terms in Annapolis as a most unhappy fellow, Mr. Schmoke feared he'd end up the same way.

Being governor requires considerable management skills that Mr. Schmoke lacks. State government makes running City Hall look like kindergarten, with a $12 billion budget vs. the city's $2 billion budget.

Mr. Schmoke has had trouble dealing with a weak City Council; his situation in Annapolis would have been perilous in contending with a powerful, obstreperous and confrontational General Assembly nearly 10 times the size of the city's legislature.

Nor was his nomination a shoo-in. Mr. Schmoke's political organization has never ventured beyond the city line, and his weak showing when he was re-elected in 1991 didn't augur well for a statewide race.

Even after the mayor's summertime campaign trips around the state, his operatives failed to make follow-up calls to local officials to line up support.

And in a race against Messrs. Steinberg and Glendening and state Sen. Mary Boergers, Mr. Schmoke would have been everyone's favorite punching bag, the obvious target for criticism. His every move as mayor would have been held up for scrutiny.

All the city's woes would have been blamed on the mayor. And every new homicide, every gruesome crime, every negative development, every distressing school incident would have been blown out of proportion. Baltimore City would have been dragged through the mud.

Even if Mr. Schmoke had managed to win the primary, he would have been so brutalized that the Republicans would have had a cakewalk in the general election.

By withdrawing from the race, Mr. Schmoke removes Baltimore as a political target in the campaign for governor. He has avoided what could have turned into a nasty, racially tinged campaign threatening to widen the chasm separating the city from the rest of Maryland.

Instead, Baltimore City is now the most appealing bloc of uncommitted votes in the state. All the serious candidates will try to woo city voters to their cause. All contenders for governor will have to make enticing overtures to Mr. Schmoke and the city. The mayor wins by withdrawing.

And by simultaneously announcing his re-election intentions, Mr. Schmoke takes a giant step toward deflating the mayoral intentions of City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. His fund-raiser this week will make him the King Kong of the 1995 campaign, with a massive treasury that she can't possibly match. She now must take on an incumbent mayor, a difficult task even in the best of situations.

As for Mr. Schmoke's Senate ambitions, he'll have to be content with remaining at City Hall for quite some time.

Paul Sarbanes, who now looks like a shoo-in for re-election next year, will be a mere 67 when he next runs in the year 2000; Barbara Mikulski will be 62 when she's up for election in 1998. At that rate, there might not be a Maryland Senate vacancy till 2006 (when Mr. Sarbanes turns 73) or 2010 (when Ms. Mikulski turns 74). But then, Kurt Schmoke has a distinct advantage: He's 43. He can afford to be patient.

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