Careers Threatened by Crime and Ice

February 20, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Every good political executive understands there are certain services that must be provided to constituents: a decent education system, adequate public safety, regular garbage collection and passable roads. If you fail to deliver on any of these, your political life is in jeopardy.

Just ask Kurt Schmoke and Roger Hayden.

Mayor Schmoke has blown it (partially, for now) on education and on public safety in Baltimore City. He could be fighting for his political career in 1995.

County Executive Hayden has blown it badly on passable roads.

For two winters, he has so bungled snow and ice removal that constituents in various parts of the county are up in arms.

This comes on top of a host of other upsets Baltimore County voters of various stripes have with him. Republicans had better start looking for a back-up candidate just in case Mr. Hayden self-destructs before this year's September primary.

To some degree, Mr. Hayden can blame his recent troubles on the weather. He can also take solace in the fact that many Baltimore County residents may not remember the January-February hardships of trying to navigate poorly cleared county roadways when it comes time to vote in 90-degree weather this fall.

Yet this spate of severe wintry travails could leave a lasting impression. Remember that Richard J. Daley's successor in Chicago as mayor, Jane Byrne, was tossed out of office by voters still angered over her failure to get the Windy City's snow-clogged roads cleared.

In Mr. Hayden's case, he has much to answer for. First, he crippled the county's snow-removal efforts by laying off 18 percent of the public works personnel in a reorganization drive to save money. The three most experienced plowing supervisors were lost.

Not surprisingly, a month later he botched the 1993 post-blizzard cleanup. His response was to announce a new, improved way to add to the county's snow-removal manpower -- privatization of some of the road-clearing.

But judging from the haphazard conditions of county roads during recent ice storms, privatization may not have worked.

This comes at a time when Mr. Hayden is feeling political heat from other quarters. Anti-tax groups despise him for raising the local income tax. Public employee unions hate him for firing workers. Constituents are angry about cutbacks in county services. And the twice-divorced executive is fending off a nasty allegation that he sexually harassed female employees.

No wonder some Republicans are quietly discussing alternative candidates. Mr. Hayden's snow woes add to the impression he's not up to the job of delivering basic services that local residents have come to expect.

That is also true of Mayor Schmoke. He, at least, kept his public works department intact and fought off the snow and ice. But the city's schools remain mired in poor performance, the middle class is still fleeing the city and the crime problem is on everyone's mind.

What has the mayor done about this? In the case of crime, a recent Sun series by reporter David Simon indicates Mr. Schmoke bears direct responsibility for the horrid decline of the city police department.

Just as he personally blundered in failing to pick a good school chief the first time around, he also fouled up badly in selecting a police chief. His only hope now is that the new chief, Thomas Frazier, can work a miracle and save Mr. Schmoke's political neck.

By all odds, Mr. Schmoke should be a heavy favorite to win a third term next year. Even a challenge from City Council President Mary Pat Clarke shouldn't pose much of a threat. But the crime crisis suddenly makes Mr. Schmoke vulnerable.

People are scared, and angry. Their trust in City Hall is ebbing. Where is the public safety on the streets that we used to take for granted? For too long, Mr. Schmoke just threw up his hands and blamed it on society's problems. He ignored the police department's growing internal shortcomings. It's too big for one city mayor to solve, he seemed to be saying.

But that doesn't cut it when Baltimoreans -- adults and kids -- are dying in front of their houses, when city residents fear to walk the streets at night.

There's no way Mr. Schmoke can avoid responsibility for an out-of-control problem on his watch. The situation has gotten worse -- rather than better -- during his stewardship.

Were the city election to be held this spring, Mr. Schmoke would be in big trouble.

He and Commissioner Frazier do have a year and a half to turn things around. Maybe the public's panic over crime will abate after this fall's elections. Maybe the police department will re-emerge as a sterling example of law enforcement prowess.

Or maybe Mr. Schmoke has lost forever the faith of city voters that he can deliver to them the sine qua non of city living: good schools and safe streets.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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