Clinton gives cities hope, Schmoke says That zeal spurred his decision to stay BALTIMORE CITY

October 01, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- When Kurt L. Schmoke issued his surprise announcement that he wasn't running for governor, one of the reasons he cited was that the next few years might just be a real good time to be a mayor.

That reason, he says, is the election in 1992 of a Democratic president who Mr. Schmoke is believes is committed to lending a hand.

Even though he concedes that the 1980s -- and the beginning of the 1990s -- have not exactly been a smooth journey for America's cities, Mr. Schmoke thinks that maybe the corner is about to be turned.

"Things are starting to move in the right direction for Baltimore in a lot of different ways," Mr. Schmoke said in a telephone interview. "And with a president who cares about cities, we could make a lot of progress during the next three years. . . ."

If the mayor figures that Baltimore has a powerful friend in Washington, the feeling is reciprocated in the White House, where Mr. Schmoke is considered the administration's premier ally in Baltimore.

"The president has respect for Mayor Schmoke and feels close to him personally," says White House communications director Mark Gearan. "A lot of the model and creative things going on in cities today are on display in Baltimore."

Another White House official, who asked not to be identified, put it in more earthy terms: "Schmoke endorsed Bill Clinton when he needed it most -- at the height of the Gennifer Flowers stuff, [claims by Ms. Flowers to have been Mr. Clinton's lover]" the official said. "And the president tends to remember the people who stood up to the plate in February of '92."

Although Mr. Schmoke met future first lady Hillary Rodham when he was a Yale undergraduate and she was a big wheel in the Yale law school, the mayor first met Mr. Clinton in December of 1991.

Having just been re-elected, Mr. Schmoke was only then turning his attention to the presidential primaries. He posed the same question to all Democratic contenders: "What are you going to do for the cities?"

Instead of characterizing the cities in terms of being a burden that the federal government must bear, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton spoke enthusiastically about the cities as being untapped resources.

"Clinton called cities 'centers for expanding opportunities,' " recalled Larry S. Gibson, the mayor's top political adviser. "After he left, the mayor turned to me and said, 'Larry, this guy is different.' "

Mr. Schmoke recalls being impressed that Mr. Clinton was honest about the fiscal constraints that were going to be present, even in a Democratic administration. No president was just going to be able to throw billions at the cities, Mr. Schmoke says.

"I liked that he recognized that federal government was not going to be able to give us a lot and that we needed to do it in other ways," Mr. Schmoke said. "He understood that we need more flexibility in spending the money we are already getting, in being able to cut bureaucratic red tape. He was supportive of programs initiated at the neighborhood level up rather than federal government down."

From the outset, there was one issue that threatened to keep the men apart -- Mr. Schmoke's views on decriminalizing drug use. Instead, it apparently brought them closer as Mr. Schmoke introduced the subject with a self-deprecating quip and Mr. Clinton responded by finding some common ground with the mayor and using a very personal example.

"I said to him, 'Do you think an endorsement from me is going to hurt more than help?' " Mr. Schmoke recalled with a laugh.

Mr. Clinton responded that although he disagreed with Mr. Schmoke's "bottom line" policy, he agreed with Mr. Schmoke's position that a far higher percentage of the resources used in the nation's drug war should go to treatment and prevention efforts.

"He talked about his brother's past drug problem. He indicated that his brother had been arrested and briefly incarcerated, but said that it was his post-arrest counseling and treatment that had made the difference in his life."

In the ensuing campaign, Mr. Schmoke not only endorsed Mr. Clinton, but worked hard for him.

Mr. Clinton didn't win the Maryland primary, finishing second to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas. In the fall general election, however, Maryland was one of only two of the 50 states -- Arkansas is the other -- that gave the Democratic nominee a 50 percent majority in the three-way contest of Mr. Clinton, incumbent Republican George Bush and independent Ross Perot.

How well Mr. Schmoke -- and voters in Baltimore -- are being rewarded for their loyalty is an open question.

Mr. Schmoke says outright that he doesn't expect Baltimore to receive any kind of favoritism over other cities -- it's just that policies that help cities help Baltimore.

Having said that, the mayor and his wife enjoyed the hospitality of the Clintons at a White House dinner party. In addition, Mr. Clinton and his wife have each visited the city twice -- that's more than they've been to Camp David -- and Secretary Henry G. Cisneros of the Department of Housing and Urban Development has been to Baltimore so many times that local Democrats joke that he's looking for real estate.

On matters of substantive policy, the president's $16.3 billion jobs stimulus package was primarily designed to benefit cities. The bill did not pass, though it did show the nation's mayors that Mr. Clinton's heart was in the right place.

Mr. Schmoke also touts Mr. Clinton's plan for creating "enterprise" zones that grant businesses tax breaks for investing in blighted neighborhoods. He also supports the administration's pending crime legislation, which calls for 100,000 officers in a national program for "community policing."

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