A More Activist Mayor?

November 07, 1993|By JOANNA DAEMMRICH

High in an office tower overlooking Baltimore's glittering Inner Harbor, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke paced in the glare of the television cameras with chin up, brow furrowed and hands clasped before him in the thoughtful manner of a college professor.

In typically serious fashion, the mayor had just listed and analyzed each of the factors in deciding whether to run for the most powerful office in the state. His wife and children had given him the green light. He had traveled to rural counties to meet with civic leaders. His polls convinced him that he could become the next governor of Maryland.

Just as he finished reciting his accomplishments, Mr. Schmoke astonished the assembled crowd. Political pundits and even some administration insiders looked up in surprise as he that announced he would seek re-election and flashed his wide smile.

It hasn't been easy to smile with that sort of confidence in Baltimore for a long time.

Ever since he took office, Mr. Schmoke has been consumed with the city's mounting problems of poverty, crime, illiteracy and the flight of the middle class to the suburbs. A cautious, reserved politician, he fit the sober era of dwindling resources and dimmed expectations.

But with a Democratic administration back in Washington for the first time in 12 years and a new lineup of more activist department heads, Mr. Schmoke is working like a man in a hurry.

His wide smile radiates the optimism of a mayor who is courted to speak at national symposiums, a mayor used to taking national leaders on tours through Baltimore neighborhoods.

It's the smile of a mayor whose critics are talking about a new momentum at City Hall, a mayor who has won concessions from a governor after years of strained relations.

Mr. Schmoke is quite frank about his hopes to capitalize on his ties to the Clinton administration, most notably with Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio with whom he's been on first-name terms for years.

"I'd like them to use Baltimore as a model for the country's urban policy," the mayor says, pausing to choose his words carefully.

At the same time, he makes clear that he's "not waiting for the Clinton administration to present their ideas." But if an initiative comes from Washington, perhaps along the lines of the much-touted "empowerment zones" for blighted inner-city neighborhoods, he plans to put Baltimore in the forefront.

One example is his recent success in teaming up with Gov. William Donald Schaefer to persuade federal housing officials to tear down crime-infested public housing towers and replace them with more livable garden-style apartments. Until last month, the mayor says, he beat on the door of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in vain.

The bright signs come at a time when the city is caught in a spiral of drug-related violence and the public schools continue to be plagued by low test scores and high dropout rates. Those signs have been welcomed by the mayor's detractors, who have complained since early in his first term that Mr. Schmoke was bold in calling for a national debate on decriminalizing drugs but too timid at home.

The Ivy League lawyer and Rhodes scholar has gained national attention by suggesting that drugs be considered a public health problem and that more money should be spent on treatment than on law enforcement.

Yet in Baltimore, he drew criticism for being too uncomfortable with running the city bureaucracy, too willing to let others set the agenda, too ready to launch into an intellectual debate on rebuilding communities instead of getting his hands dirty.

He talked about regional cooperation, yet little occurred. He talked about the incarceration rate, yet he had to rely on the governor to help bail the city out of its jail overcrowding. Some of his provocative ideas on drugs and crime were clearly beyond his reach.

But these days, the mayor is translating his thoughts on urban policy into action. Although some critics continue to complain that he's too cerebral and too reluctant to cheerlead, many others believe he has an administration in place that's poised to make progress.

"To me, the enigma has always been that he's a wonderful person, you share values with him, he seems to think about things, but there's something missing between him and how his administration acts," says Robert Giloth, executive director of the Southeast Community Organization. "Part of it is that he's much more of an idea person; he's not a hands-on leader that sticks with stuff. But I think he's got some good people to carry out the ideas now."

Political columnist Frank A. DeFilippo also sees more hopeful signs. "You have to consider the fact that Maryland is joined at the hip with the District [of Columbia]. Someone like Cisneros can shoot over in 40 minutes. And you have a reversal of the social policy of the past 12 years. That gives the mayor cause for optimism."

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