IF YOU notice Mayor Kurt Schmoke looking over his shoulder these days, it might very well be because Wayne K. Curry is closing in on him.
Mr. Curry, you see, is the newly elected black executive of Prince George's County. And that in itself means that Mr. Schmoke is no longer the sole black Wunderkind of Maryland politics. He has company at the top now, big time.
Up front, though, it's fair to point out that Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Curry are friends. And the common denominator just happens to be the signmeister of Maryland politics, attorney Larry Gibson. And, for the record, Mr. Schmoke did attend Mr. Curry's swearing-in ceremony in December.
Mr. Gibson has been Mr. Schmoke's political handler and guru since the mayor first ran for state's attorney in 1982. And this year, Mr. Gibson -- a professor of Mr. Curry's at the University of Maryland Law School -- was actively involved in his former student's campaign for executive of PeeGee County.
So down the line somewhere it just might be Mr. Gibson, the tactician, who'll be guiding the choices as to whether Mr. Schmoke goes to Washington or settles for a judgeship -- or if it's Mr. Curry who heads for Annapolis or stays put in his home county.
Mr. Schmoke is staring down the barrel of a tough re-election campaign against City Council President Mary Pat Clarke.
By contrast, Mr. Curry defeated his Republican opponent, Robert Ostrom, by more than 2-1 in a county that is 51 percent black and one of the wealthiest black enclaves in the country.
More impressive, however, is that Mr. Curry survived a bitterly divisive primary election against a black state senator, Beatrice Tignor, and a white County Council woman, Sue V. Mills.
The primary election fracture was further compounded by a breach in the Prince George's Democratic Party. Elected officials in Annapolis, led by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, were openly supporting Senator Tignor. But local operatives loyal to Gov.-elect Parris Glendening were promoting Mr. Curry. Eventually, the two feuding factions negotiated a no-endorsement truce.
Still, Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Curry share a common problem -- money. Mr. Schmoke's impecunious city resembles a welfare colony on subsistence from Annapolis. And Mr. Curry's predecessor, Mr. Glendening, stiff-armed his successor by leaving behind a budget deficit of nearly $170 million, even though he bragged during the campaign about a budget surplus.
As a result, Mr. Curry has publicly denounced Mr. Glendening for his sleight-of-hand while Mr. Schmoke remains friendly with the governor-elect in hopes of cashing in on his endorsement and support by way of patronage appointments and financial aid for the city.
Mr. Curry, 43, had never held elective office until now. But he's no novice to politics or county government. He served on the staff of former County Executive Winfield Kelly Jr., and he has a tight little circle of friends and contacts throughout the PeeGee bureaucracy by dint of his years of backstage political work and law practice in the county seat of Upper Marlboro.
Mr. Schmoke, 46, often behaves like a reluctant debutante at a Junior League tea. Last year he was viewed as the front-running Democratic candidate for governor. But he backed away, explaining his preference for the rarefied air of Washington over the locker-room politics of Annapolis.
As mayor, Mr. Schmoke often neutralizes his own appointees. Most recently, he mediated a compromise with public housing tenants over an order by Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III that would have required them to perform community service to qualify for housing subsidies.
Before that, Mr. Schmoke refused to back Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier's transfer of a black district commander. And he frequently undercuts his own school superintendent, Walter Amprey, by reversing decisions.
Mr. Schmoke is mannerly and gracious, almost apologetic about being in politics. Mr. Curry is considered a savvy lawyer and a hardball politician whose inner circle of advisers is composed of bright young professionals very much like himself.
As Mr. Schmoke prepares to run for a third term as mayor, his record as a candidate is also worth noting. In 1987, he almost botched a sure thing. Mr. Schmoke was ahead in the polls by 35 points, but ended up defeating Clarence "Du" Burns by only 5,000 votes. In a rematch in 1991, however, Mr. Schmoke defeated Mr. Burns by a substantial margin.
So as the politics of the future begins to take shape, Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Curry are two elected officials to watch. Not only are they young, bright and educated, but they represent two of the largest subdivisions in the state with the state's two largest black populations.
Maryland has one of the largest black populations in the nation -- 25 percent -- while the nation's overall black population is only 12.4 percent.
There's one more question about Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Curry: Will they remain formidable friends or will they become rivals for power? Ask Larry Gibson.
Frank A. DeFilippo writes on Maryland politics from Owings Mills.