A Schmoke-Clarke race for mayor will cause black soul-searching

R. B. Jones

November 03, 1993|By R. B. Jones

THE 1995 mayoral election will be a troubling one for Baltimore City in general and the African-American community in particular if the projected Democratic primary battle between incumbent Mayor Kurt Schmoke and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke actually takes place.

AIn exactly two years, black voters face an election in which race loyalties will be strained, and the soul-searching has already begun. Many blacks favor Ms. Clarke but don't want to vote against a "brother," even if Mr. Schmoke emphasizes his color neutrality.

The conspicuous vitality of racism in this country forces blacks to vacillate between integration and nationalism. To many blacks, the election of Kurt Schmoke and other African-Americans to high office represents the vindication of the integrationist movement. Mr. Schmoke is the culmination of that movement. He is black but acceptable to all but extreme white racists, so blacks can be proud of him and support him without causing their white co-workers and neighbors to feel threatened.

But Mr. Schmoke also runs smack into the face of the nationalist impulse among African-Americans. While Irish politicians can make impassioned speeches about the British oppression in Northern Ireland and support the Irish Republican Army, black politicians like Mr. Schmoke cannot make speeches supporting African movements that are considered radical -- even if the black politicians are inclined to do so.

The nationalist impulse demands that black leaders speak and act boldly in the interests of their people, but that seldom happens.

One reason why Malcolm X (who's been dead more than 28 years) and Louis Farrakhan appeal to so many African-Americans is their bold outspokenness in their people's interests. The nationalist impulse is very powerful among African-Americans in Baltimore despite the fact that it does not have a strong institutional base here.

Mary Pat Clarke is a real threat to Kurt Schmoke's re-election plans because she has more genuine support in the African-American community than any white politician since the late Theodore McKeldin. (William Donald Schaefer's support among blacks was based more on fear than a sense of common causes.)

Most striking is the intensity of the Clarke support, support the council president has earned over many years of grassroots activity in a city and councilmanic district (the 2nd) that are predominantly black. Black supporters say she is accessible and that she genuinely cares about the city. Even some who dismiss white people's good intentions say Ms. Clarke is "sort of all right."

If many blacks cross the racial border to vote for Ms. Clarke, Mayor Schmoke's black community base will be seriously eroded. Mr. Schmoke and his handlers must remember the 1991 election, in which both Ms. Clarke and Comptroller Jacqueline McLean drew more votes than the mayor. It was an embarrassing finish for the man at the top of the ticket.

But Mr. Schmoke has a large campaign treasury and the powers of incumbency, and so far he has had no major scandals. Still, if the black community gives Ms. Clarke 30 to 35 percent of its vote, whites can be relied upon to vote along racial lines. That moves Ms. Clarke from the council president's office to the mayoral chamber.

If Mr. Schmoke is to win again, he may have to cater to the nationalist impulse among black voters, a task for which he is ill-suited and one that will be very difficult after seven years of color-blind administration.

In the waning days of the 1983 race for City Council president between Ms. Clarke and Clarence "Du" Burns, a Burns supporter knocked on my door and urged me to vote for his candidate. When I asked him why, he replied, "You can't vote for a white woman over a brother, can you?"

That question will be asked time and again in the next two years.

R.B. Jones is a Baltimore writer.

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