The race equation adds up to a Schmoke victory

March 13, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

Though many believe that crime will be the central issue in the 1995 mayoral contest between Kurt Schmoke and Mary Pat Clarke, a different issue may, in fact, dominate.

Neither candidate is likely to dwell on it publicly, but it is has been a potent force in American politics for some time: race.

Schmoke is black and Clarke is white; and while in a perfect world that might not matter, this is not a perfect world.

So let's take a look at what race might mean in the future, by examining what role it played in the past:

In two respects, Schmoke had every reason to be pleased by the results of his 1991 re-election campaign: He not only beat his nearest opponent, Du Burns, by 27.9 percentage points, but he also received a majority of the vote in a three-way race. (Bill Swisher got just under 10 percent of the vote.)

But there was also bad news: Schmoke did worse among white voters than he had done in 1987, when he first ran for mayor.

While in 1987 Schmoke received 33 percent of the white vote, in 1991 that figure dropped to 30 percent.

So what accounted for his large victory margin in 1991?

He did much better among black voters.

In 1987, Schmoke got 62 percent of the black vote. In 1991, he got 78 percent. To put it another way, Schmoke won the black vote 2-1 in 1987 and nearly 4-1 in 1991.

In 1991, the black voter registration of Baltimore was about 60 percent. But in 1992, as Bill Clinton's state chairman, Larry Gibson launched a massive voter registration drive that boosted the percentage of black voters in Baltimore to about 63 percent.

Gibson, who is Schmoke's campaign chairman, said after Schmoke's 1991 victory: "From a politician's perspective, you must ask yourself: Who is my constituency? The constituency of Kurt Schmoke's vote in 1987 is that he got 72 percent of his vote from blacks and 28 percent of his vote from whites. In 1991, he got 76 percent of the vote from blacks and 24 percent of it from whites."

What does this mean?

It means any white challenger faces a formidable task running head-to-head against Kurt Schmoke.

Crunch the numbers this way:

If Schmoke does as well in 1995 as he did in 1991 and receives 78 percent of the black vote, that would give him 49 percent of the total vote.

He would then have to pick up only a few white votes -- and he got 30 percent of them last time -- to win. Now look at Mary Pat Clarke's task: Even if she got 100 percent of the white vote, she would still be 14 percentage points shy of victory.

So Clarke must not only garner a large vote total in the white community, but also a significant number of black votes.

This is not impossible. Black people, who are disproportionately the victims of crime, can be expected to respond to crime as a campaign issue.

And, it is true that in recent years Los Angeles, Chicago and New York have switched from black mayors to white ones. (Though in none of those cities are blacks a majority of the voters.)

But Clarke must also walk a tightrope: To win, she must attack. She must paint Baltimore as a city in crisis with a runaway crime problem and a failed public school system. And she must lay the blame squarely at the feet of Kurt Schmoke, the city's first elected black mayor, whom many black voters take pride in. She must then persuade blacks to vote for her as his replacement.

But Schmoke has problems, too. It would take a real optimist to believe that crime in Baltimore will be significantly reduced by September, 1995, the date of the mayoral primary. And Schmoke may not be able to count on getting anywhere near 30 percent of the white vote against a significant white candidate.

More troubling to him, black voters who fully expect him to win might cast a vote against him as a "wake-up call" to show their dissatisfaction. Schmoke would not be the first mayor to be unseated by a protest vote among people he viewed as his chief supporters.

To see if he would risk a prediction, on Friday I called Larry Gibson and asked him if Schmoke was going to win next year.

"Yes," Gibson said. "We will take nothing for granted. We will campaign very hard in every part of the city. But, yes, we will win."

MONDAY: A meaner Schmoke?

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