Alone in a Crowd

January 04, 1995|By ROBIN MILLER

Several years ago, I watched Mayor Schmoke during an awards ceremony at City Hall. As he moved through the crowd, it parted, so that he always had at least two feet of space around him. The crowd was not hostile -- they were all friends and supporters -- but seemed in awe of His Honor. The bubble of space they gave him was one of respect, not dislike.

I was attending the ceremony because I knew one of the honorees, not because I was writing about it, but I had a cassette recorder and notebook with me. I did not intend to interview the mayor, but thought it might be nice to say, ''Hi.''

As I moved toward him I felt a hand on my arm. It was Mr. Schmoke's public-relations coach, Clint Coleman. He said, ''You can't tape the mayor here. You can only tape him during formal interviews. You'll have to take notes.''

''Why?'' I asked.

''Because, well, you know . . .'' said Mr. Coleman. ''It's just our policy.''

''What if the mayor was speaking outdoors and I taped him from across the street?'' I asked. ''Would that be OK?''

''We couldn't stop you, but we'd rather you didn't,'' Mr. Coleman replied.

A few months later I had a story that would have been improved by a brief quote from Mayor Schmoke. I called his office and was told all interview requests had to go through Clint Coleman. I left a message for Mr. Coleman. My call had not been returned a day before my deadline, so I called Baltimore's next-best-known public figure and all-purpose city government spokesperson: Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

She invited me to meet her in her office immediately after that night's City Council meeting, as it was the only time she and I both had free before my story's deadline. She spoke freely, without constraints. And yes, I taped what she said without a thought.

Lack of contact -- human contact -- with Baltimore is what makes Mayor Schmoke vulnerable to a challenge from Ms. Clarke.

I say this out of affection for the mayor. I have met him several times in private circumstances and have found him to be a warm, intelligent and caring man. In public, Mr. Schmoke seems scared to make a mistake or say the wrong thing, which makes him appear stiff and unapproachable. When a city's mayor can stand in a room full of supporters, alone, with no one talking to him, something is wrong.

Mary Pat Clarke is never alone in a crowd. People shove past each other to shake her hand, to touch her, to talk to her. She invites human contact. During an interview, she doesn't hesitate to take off her shoes, wiggle in her seat and otherwise display normal human behavior. Her speech is rapid, obviously unrehearsed.

As an experiment, I once shoved a cassette recorder in Ms. Clarke's direction during a public event. Instead of hiding from the device, she automatically turned toward it. I have watched her turn toward a TV camera in the same manner, while Mr. Schmoke seems to duck his head and bow his shoulders slightly when confronted by an unexpected photographer.

I am not saying that Mary Pat Clarke would be a better -- or worse -- mayor than Kurt Schmoke. Her contact with the citizenry might be better, which makes doing ''the will of the people'' easier, but Mayor Schmoke's ability to come up with new public-policy ideas may make him better for Baltimore in the long run.

I feel sorry for Mr. Schmoke. I believe he has genuinely good ideas that he is afraid to voice, especially after the national drubbing he took for suggesting that, just maybe, we should try treating drug addiction as a disease instead of putting addicts in prison. His error wasn't in making the statement, but in backing down afterward. Baltimore people respected the mayor for speaking out, even if they disagreed with what he said.

Ms. Clarke makes mistakes, too, but doesn't go into a funk over them. While Mayor Schmoke sits in his office, she is all over the city, listening to people's concerns and coming up with solutions, busily making friends and establishing contacts that will help her when the actual campaign begins.

The election isn't until autumn, but it may be decided in the next few months -- by Kurt Schmoke. If he is sincere about winning, he needs to stop hiding behind his handlers and start meeting people on their own level. And he must do this now; if he waits until a month or two before the election, it will seem like a campaign trick, not a true change of heart.

Robin Miller writes from Baltimore.

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