Schmoke tries to combat Clarke's street smarts

April 04, 1994|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writer

In front of a scuffed West Baltimore school stage, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke paced back and forth with a relaxed air, gracefully fielding complaint after complaint about fallen trees, vacant houses and the trash littering sidewalks outside.

The mayor, better known as an urban policy wonk than a pothole politician, shed his usual reserve in the crowded Edgewood Elementary School auditorium. Absently, he pushed up one, then the other, shirtsleeve and bantered with civic leaders as the two-hour meeting wore on Tuesday night.

He introduced the police commissioner, housing commissioner and other Cabinet members at the meeting, the latest in a series of 14 community forums he's scheduled around the city through June. And in a deft, practiced manner, he handled the grousing about crime, clearly the overriding concern of the Walbrook and Edgewood neighborhoods.

The community forums are a rite of spring for the mayor. But they have taken on new significance this year for Mr. Schmoke, who has vowed to abandon his low-key approach and aggressively confront Mary Pat Clarke.

The city council president, a fellow Democrat who plans to run against Mayor Schmoke next year, has built a strong reputation on the streets of Baltimore. She's constantly out in the neighborhoods, hugging children, scribbling down problems on her stenographic pad, marching with church organizations and pushing the city bureaucracy into motion.

In November, for example, a Baltimore man in search of drug treatment stood with a hand-lettered appeal outside the Harbor Court Hotel, where the mayor had convened a two-day conference on international drug policy. But it was Mrs. Clarke, who tracked down the man and found him a methadone and counseling program.

Her grass-roots image contrasts with the button-down mayor, who tackles problems more privately and has been criticized by some as being cloistered at City Hall.

For a long time, Mr. Schmoke downplayed the differences and tried to avoid quarreling with the council president. But now he has announced that he considers her an adversary -- and he's fighting back.

One way is to make sure she cannot take credit for constituent services provided by his office, the mayor's strategists say.

"It's important that people who think Mary Pat's an effective politician see the difference between 'I'mas' -- I'm a going to do this or that -- and those who really do things," said Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.

"She doesn't get things done. The legislative process doesn't allow her to get things done," he said.

At his forums, Mayor Schmoke reminds residents that his agencies get things done. He has issued a different reminder to his department heads -- that they should handle all requests from elected officials and not allow the officials to appeal directly to lower-level city workers.

"This is utterly absurd," said Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, a 2nd District Democrat who has close political ties to Mrs. Clarke.

"The people who work for the city, they work for every citizen . . .," he said. "This is clearly just an effort to politicize the office. It's trying to cut off the people who are known for their constituent work."

Other council members said that they had not encountered problems working through agency heads.

And Mrs. Clarke expressed little alarm over the edict -- one that the mayor says is nothing new. Mrs. Clarke said she will continue to call employees directly in a pinch.

"I've been at this since 1975," she said. "If people have trash and debris in the alley and they want it gone, they see it as my job, and so do I.

"Basically, there's nothing wrong with an agency head wanting to know what is going on and keeping track of the efficiency of an agency. Sometimes, I just don't have time to go through the whole bureaucracy."

Mrs. Clarke ignored a similar memo sent to her by the housing commissioner. The Oct. 22 memo warned that she should send all requests directly to him.

"I am not aware of a single instance where we have failed to work with you in an aggressive, nonpartisan manner to resolve issues that you have brought to our attention," Mr. Henson wrote. "Contacts directly with my staff will result in reprimands issued to responding employees in the future."

Mr. Henson, who admits to being "a little bit of a control freak," said he was annoyed by an exchange between an aide to the council president and a housing employee that led to his department giving out wrong information. He acknowledged that Mrs. Clarke "still calls the employees," but refused to say if any had been reprimanded.

Meanwhile, some employees at the Department of Recreation and Parks are upset by the transfers of three secretaries -- they say the move resulted from a letter of complaint being sent to the mayor.

In the letter, parks workers complained that secretaries had to walk miles through Druid Hill Park to get to work and suggested they might vote for Mrs. Clarke in 1995 if nothing was done. Mr. Schmoke says he never saw the letter.

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