Setting the Stage for a Schmoke-Clarke Contest

September 26, 1993|By ERIC SIEGEL | ERIC SIEGEL,Eric Siegel is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

If the looming 1995 Baltimore Democratic mayoral primary between Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke were just a race between a well-heeled incumbent and an energetic challenger, it would be interesting enough.

But the race -- set up by last Monday's announcement by Mr. Schmoke that he would seek a third term in 1995 and by Ms. Clarke's statement Sept. 14 that she would run for mayor -- will be more than that.

Although two years can be an eternity in politics, and other candidates could enter the race, it is clear that a Schmoke-Clarke contest would be, to varying degrees, about race and gender, innovations and inertia, character and charisma.

Sizing up the shape of the campaign begins, as politics so often does, with money. Mr. Schmoke, who spurned a run for governor next year to remain in office, is certain to enjoy a huge advantage over Ms. Clarke in campaign funds.

According to the most recent reports on file at the State Administrative Board of Election Laws, Mr. Schmoke's political committee had raised $2 million in the year after the 1991 general election and had $132,000 on hand; Ms. Clarke's committee during that time raised just $56,000 and was $4,000 in debt. And the mayor has a $500-a-head fund-raiser scheduled for tomorrow that should swell his funds considerably.

But the difference in fund-raising prowess might not be as great a disadvantage as it might first appear for Ms. Clarke, who has made a career of running grass-roots, low-budget campaigns. "Money is always important in politics," says Herbert W. Smith, professor of political science at Western Maryland College and a political pollster. "In local elections, where there is a fair amount of the public with a sense of who the candidates are, money becomes less of a factor."

Indeed, the main significance of Mr. Schmoke's campaign kitty may lie not in a race against Ms. Clarke but in the financial help it will allow him to provide candidates for the council presidency and council seats from the districts.

In past elections, Mr. Schmoke has tended to remain largely uninvolved in races for other city offices. But the prospect of having a council president whose style and vision are compatible with his may be too good to ignore. Already, Mr. Schmoke and his advisers are talking almost gleefully that the main impact of Ms. Clarke's decision to run for mayor in 1995 is that it puts the council presidency up for grabs.

Then there is the question of race and gender. Among other things, a Schmoke-Clarke race pits an incumbent who is the city's first elected black mayor against a wanna-be who would be the first woman chief executive. Some black city politicians say privately that they believe the majority-black city needs a black mayor; that sentiment is sure to be even stronger when it comes to retaining a sitting mayor than electing a new one. Clarke supporters, on the other hand, are hoping that the prospect of electing the city's first woman mayor will galvanize some female voters.

Complicating the question is Ms. Clarke's popularity in the black community. To travel with Ms. Clarke on one of her continual rounds of appearances throughout the city is to see her embraced, figuratively and literally, by community leaders of all colors. In her successful 1987 City Council primary campaign (she had only token opposition in 1991), she won 30 percent of the city's black vote in a three-way race involving another white and a strong black candidate.

Mr. Schmoke got less of the white vote in 1991 (30 percent) than he did in 1987 (33 percent), running both times against another black candidate, Clarence "Du" Burns.

But Schmoke advisers point out that much of Ms. Clarke's strong showing among blacks in 1987 came from Schmoke partisans. "That won't be the case when they're running against each other," says Larry S. Gibson, Mr. Schmoke's campaign chairman.

Black voters generally tend to stick with black mayors in the absence of any major missteps, according to Ronald Walters, chairman of the political science department at Howard University. "I don't think [Mr. Schmoke has] made any major mistakes. People in the black community would probably want to keep him," says Mr. Walters.

Politically, despite some well-publicized differences over issues such as the Tesseract school privatization experiment, both Mr. Schmoke and Ms. Clarke are cut from the same liberal Democratic cloth. Thus, the central substantive issue may well be who has the best sense of what the city needs in the future.

The irony is that Mr. Schmoke and Ms. Clarke are engaging in some role reversal here. In announcing he would seek a third term for mayor last Monday, Mr. Schmoke, the incumbent, stressed innovative programs he had begun and wanted to see through to fruition, including Tesseract and community policing. In responding to his announcement later that same day, Ms. Clarke emphasized the basics. "Take back the streets and clean 'em," she said.

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