Grass-roots image veils complex Clarke persona

November 09, 1993|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

It's a sunny Saturday morning, and Baltimore City Council President Mary Pat Clarke is on the move. She's changed from low-heeled pumps to tennis shoes and is marching through an alley in Northeast Baltimore, scribbling notes in a steno pad.

She has come to this street-corner meeting of residents of the Coldstream Homestead Montebello Community Association to talk about trash. Accompanied by an aide, a housing inspector and about a dozen residents, she stops behind a rowhouse in the 1700 block of E. 28th St. whose windows are broken and whose small backyard is littered with shards of glass, broken wooden cabinets and a rusted shopping cart.

"It's been this way for two years," one resident says.

"We'll make it a priority," Ms. Clarke announces. "We can get it boarded up. What we need to do is get it sold."

The scene is vintage Mary Pat Clarke, repeated many times in many communities during two terms as a 2nd District council member and, for the past six years, as council president: Ms. Clarke out in the neighborhoods, relating to the people, nipping at the heels of the bureaucracy. "The right of people to have government work for them -- I've always believed in that," Ms. Clarke, 52, says.

But the portrait of Ms. Clarke -- who announced last month that she will run for mayor in 1995 -- that emerges from interviews with friends and foes, city officials and community leaders, is more complex and mercurial than the outgoing, grass-roots image she so often projects.

Often emotional and impetuous, she can alternately exhibit the cheerfulness of a schoolteacher greeting her class or the explosiveness of a drill sergeant putting recruits through their paces.

Supporters praise her for her keen sense of what matters to the public, but critics say that she's a publicity-seeker eager to seize any issue that will gain her favorable attention.

She is viewed by many as highly committed to addressing social problems, but her detractors say that her strong convictions frequently make her shrill and uncompromising.

And she is dogged by rumors that she has a drinking problem -- rumors that she firmly denies.

"I don't," she says flatly. "I'd like them to tell me on which of my days [she has a problem]. I mean, let the work I do speak for me."

Her mayoral ambition has sharpened the debate over Ms. Clarke -- her conduct as council president and her capabilities for higher office.

"She's quick to act -- that's her strength and her weakness," says Councilman Martin O'Malley, D-3rd, reflecting the mixed assessments she so often evokes.

Her boldest stroke may well have been her September statement that she would be a candidate for mayor in 1995 even if Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke ran for re-election. A week later, Mr. Schmoke announced that he would not run for governor next year but would seek a third term as mayor. Though some say Ms. Clarke rashly put herself out on a political limb, others say she managed to make herself look proactive and the mayor reactive.

Ms. Clarke has a ready response to skeptics who believe she may yet change her mind and avoid giving up an all-but-sure bet for a third term as council president for a risky run for mayor. "They're used to indecision. I'm not an indecisive person," she snaps.

In seeking to become the city's first female mayor, Ms. Clarke will have to unseat the city's first elected black mayor. A few years ago, Ms. Clarke said that she would not challenge Mr. Schmoke and doubted that she could be elected Baltimore's mayor because she is white. But now she seems willing to gamble on winning enough votes in the city's black community to unseat Mr. Schmoke.

Mr. Schmoke, for his part, says that a Clarke mayoral bid would "open the door for some relatively strong candidacies" for council president. Recently, council members Vera P. Hall, D-5th, and Carl Stokes, D-2nd, said they plan to run.

With Ms. Clarke's tireless style of door-to-door campaigning, Mr. Schmoke's supporters are not taking her mayoral candidacy lightly.

Relentless campaigning

On a recent Saturday, Ms. Clarke started her day with a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of a gift shop, read a children's book at a library, stopped by a half-dozen community fairs, and attended three meetings of residents. Eating only a handful of popcorn during a nonstop, nine-hour day, she effusively greeted those she knew with hugs, and those she didn't with warm handshakes and smiles.

In neighborhoods across the city, variations on a theme are sounded: Mary Pat got a pothole fixed; Mary Pat got a street sign changed; Mary Pat got equipment for a tot lot. But, mostly, what you hear is that when the council president's office was called with a problem, someone listened; when there was a community meeting, Ms. Clarke or someone from her office was there.

"You can always get hold of them," says Dorothy Dixon, president of the Walbrook Neighborhood Community Council in West Baltimore.

Ms. Clarke makes no apologies for spending her time working on small problems.

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