Race in City Appointments: An Issue Under the Surface

January 30, 1994|By MICHAEL A. FLETCHER

Two van loads of ministers came to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's office a few weeks ago itching for a fight -- and they found one.

The ministers were angry about the mayor's nomination of Thomas C. Frazier as Baltimore's new police commissioner.

As they saw it, Mr. Frazier -- who earned his stripes as a police officer and administrator in sunny San Jose, Calif. -- was unproven when it comes to working in real urban areas -- areas comparable to Baltimore. Consequently, they alleged, Mr. Frazier was the least qualified among the four finalists for the job.

And yes, they admit, they were troubled that Mr. Frazier is white.

"I think the implication here was that the past two chiefs [under Mr. Schmoke], who were African-Americans, had failed," said the Rev. Douglas Miles, pastor of East Baltimore's Koinonia Baptist Church who supported his fellow ministers, but did not accompany them to Mr. Schmoke's office.

"His action says to straighten out this police department that is in chaos, we must again turn to a white chief," Mr. Miles continued. "I think that says something about the mayor. It says he is out of touch with his own community."

It is a charge that the buttoned-down Mr. Schmoke has periodically been forced to endure from some black leaders since being elected state's attorney in 1982. The mayor is vulnerable to such broadsides because of his cautious political style, his often less-than-rousing political rhetoric, and his refusal to publicly confront such criticism.

Make no mistake, those attacks make him furious. But his only response has been at the ballot box where he has consistently rung up large majorities in black communities. Running against Clarence H. "Du" Burns, his black opponent in the 1991 Democratic mayoral primary, Mr. Schmoke won an estimated three out of four black votes. With that in mind, Mr. Schmoke is holding firm in the face of the criticism.

"There are simply a few people who are raising this question of race," Mr. Schmoke said. "But those voices are not representative of our community."

The mayor rarely gets involved in public controversies about race, perhaps because he realizes that he could only lose if he did. But his actions often fill the vacuum created by his reluctance to resort to rhetoric.

Racially, Mr. Schmoke's 42-member Cabinet reflects the city: it is roughly 60 percent African-American. And he has subjected himself to criticism in support of black appointees. He was thoroughly second-guessed when he selected Walter G. Amprey, a former Baltimore County administrator, to be schools superintendent after inviting the nationally respected David W. Hornbeck, who is white, to apply for the job.

When Mr. Schmoke chose Dr. Amprey, he said, predictably, that he had chosen the right man for the job. Many interpreted that to mean that Mr. Schmoke believed that only a black person could run the oft-criticized school system, whose enrollment is 82 percent black.

Race may have been a factor, but aides say that the bottom line was that Mr. Schmoke felt comfortable that he could work closely with Dr. Amprey, something they questioned when it came to Mr. Hornbeck.

When the opportunity arose to choose a police commissioner, many assumed that only a black person could command the community respect necessary to run the Baltimore Police Department. After all, blacks far more than whites are victims of crime in Baltimore. Also, the department made some 50,000 arrests last year -- and most of that work was done in the city's overwhelmingly poor, black neighborhoods.

So when Mr. Schmoke chose Mr. Frazier for the job, some critics quickly searched for other motives. Some privately suggested that the mayor was positioning himself for what promises to be a tough re-election campaign against City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who is white.

They figured choosing Mr. Frazier was the mayor's way of reaching out to white voters, who have given Mr. Schmoke only lukewarm support in past elections. (He got about 30 percent of the white vote in the 1991 primary against Mr. Burns and William Swisher, who is white.)

But if race and geographic background were the only critical issues in selecting a police chief, then the recently departed Edward V. Woods would still be on the job.

He is black, had grown up in Baltimore, had risen through the ranks, and is well known in political circles. But Mr. Woods could never communicate with the authority and conviction that inspires confidence.

That sin is pardonable if all is well. But Mr. Woods hardly served during normal times. He suffered through a severe city budget crisis that stripped his force of manpower and made the Police Department appear impotent in the face of a record upsurge in murder and other violent crimes.

"The problem is crime, and more important, the perception of crime," said an aide to Mr. Schmoke.

"People want someone who is going to do something about that. They don't care if that person happens to be white, black or midnight blue."

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