Washington bigwigs cotton to Crab Town

April 21, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday night she's been to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore so often she feels like she should move in, "or at least have a cot." Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros has joked that he's been such a frequent visitor to the city he ought to start house hunting there. The Clinton administration has become the Barry Levinson of politics, finding the blue-plate charm -- and, of course, proximity -- of Baltimore the perfect stage set for its populist road show.

A mere beltway away, the city allows the Clinton gang to get outside of Washington, venture into the hinterlands, mix with real people -- and be back in time for lunch.

Maryland politicos say that while every modern White House has staged events in the closest major city to Washington -- only a short helicopter or train ride away -- they can't recall any administration that's been so crazy about Crab Town.

"I don't know of any time we've had, sequentially, so many administration officials come to town," says Larry Gibson, political adviser to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Republican Rep. Helen Delich Bentley says that during Ronald Reagan's eight years in office, she can recall his visiting Baltimore three times, George Bush about the same (not including his trips to the ballpark).

Mr. Clinton has already been to the Baltimore area three times as president (as well as to Frederick, Upper Marlboro, College Park, the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland).

As for Cabinet officials from the two previous administrations, "We really had to pull teeth to get them in there," Ms. Bentley says of her fellow Republicans.

For the Clinton crowd it's as easy as ordering fries with your burger.

This week, Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, a frequent visitor, was the featured speaker at a state Democratic Party fund-raiser in Baltimore Tuesday night. Mrs. Clinton spent Monday there, doing the working-class diner routine at the Canton Cafe (she visited Jimmy's Restaurant in nearby Fells Point less than a year ago), visiting an elementary school in West Baltimore and then Hopkins for the third time.

She was accompanied by Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, already a five-time visitor to the city.

In the last couple of weeks: Mr. Cisneros walked through a run-down Baltimore neighborhood; Attorney General Janet Reno (another repeat visitor) dropped in on a middle school and demonstrated "peer mediation" by playing a teen-age girl fighting with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., over a boy; National Security adviser W. Anthony Lake spoke at the Hopkins about U.S. involvement in the Balkans; Education Secretary Richard W. Riley visited a high school and released a department report.

"It's a little excessive," says Ms. Bentley. "Maybe they're going to wear out their welcome."

It doesn't look that way. Sam Ringgold, the Baltimore city police spokesman, says that even though the VIP visits mean additional work in terms of security and traffic redirection, "I haven't heard anyone complain about it. Having them in our city usually means good things for our city."

Much of Baltimore's appeal is obvious. As the Democrats focus on such issues as urban revitalization, they're holding numerous events in the nation's distressed cities. And Baltimore, of course, is close -- the ultimate cheap and easy date for a White House that likes to get out of Dodge as much as possible.

"It's a travel day, but there's not a lot of wear and tear on the principal," says one White House aide.

Sharon Maedwa, a spokeswoman for Mr. Cisneros, says Baltimore is an ideal "backdrop" for her boss, who frequents Richmond almost as much as Baltimore, because of the cities' proximity to Washington. "We're mindful that we can't constantly have events in Washington, but often his schedule doesn't allow him to go much further than Baltimore."

Similarly, officials know that the closer they stay to Washington, the greater their chances of coverage by the national press corps.

But Baltimore's attraction goes well beyond mileage. With a Democratic mayor who is a pal of the Clintons, two Democratic senators and several Democratic representatives who are central to much of this administration's legislation, and a citizenry that is intensely Democratic, Baltimore nearly guarantees the White House a warm, controversy-free welcome.

"Anywhere you can go where you can be called 'hon' when the press is savaging you on Whitewater looks like an appealing place to be," jokes Melissa Line, a political scientist at Goucher College.

Indeed, when Mrs. Clinton spent the day in Baltimore this week there was not a mention of the W word. She received only flowers, T-shirts and baseball caps from schoolchildren, and polite, noncontentious questions from members of a health care forum audience preselected by Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore.

"The Clintons know they're going to be favorably received here," says Mr. Gibson, who chaired the 1992 Clinton campaign in Maryland.

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