Sixteen years ago, Kurt L. Schmoke burst onto the political scene as a unifying figure. That was his appeal as city state's attorney. That was his appeal in the 1987 elections, which catapulted him to City Hall as the Baltimore's first elected African-American mayor.
As he seeks a third term, voters are seeing a different Kurt L. Schmoke -- a politician stressing polarizing themes that the city can ill afford. His attacks on challenger Mary Pat Clarke have focused on the City Council president's campaign expense reports or real estate deals rather than on issues fundamental to Baltimore's future well-being. His move to abolish the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association further alienated a business community that finds the mayor aloof and uncooperative.
What motivates Mr. Schmoke? Could it be William Donald Schaefer, who is encouraging speculation that after eight years as governor he now wants to return to his old job as mayor?
Mr. Schmoke seems to have developed a perception that the BACVA board was a nesting place for Schaefer loyalists who had to be flushed out, whatever the cost. When behind-the-scenes maneuvering failed to oust the likes of Christopher Hartman, BACVA's secretary and a former press secretary to Mr. Schaefer, Mr. Schmoke decided to go public. From then on, the dispute escalated until it became a test of wills.
Coinciding with all this was Mr. Schaefer's biting public and private criticism of the Schmoke administration. Responded an angry Mayor Schmoke: If Mr. Schaefer's maneuvers were "just a warm-up to candidacy, I believe either he gets in or shuts up." Larry S. Gibson, the mayor's chief political strategist and campaign manager, says a Schaefer bid to take over City Hall would give him an opportunity "to set the record straight" about the "Schaefer myth" of Baltimore renaissance.
If Mr. Schaefer re-enters the political arena, he could challenge Mr. Schmoke and Mrs. Clarke in the Democratic primary or, more likely, run in the general election. Mr. Schaefer already has obtained a form to change party affiliation before the June 19 deadline. He then would have until July 3 to file. Nothing else would be required of him, were he to run as a Republican. However, if he were to become an Independent mayoral candidate, he would have to collect signatures from 10,256 registered city voters by Aug. 7 to qualify.
Spirited political contests are essential to a healthy democracy. If voters are given a real choice, they can compare the platforms of the various candidates and examine the records of incumbents seeking re-election or new office. But if the campaign turns out to be unrelentingly negative and divisive, this would be contrary to the interests of a city Mr. Schmoke, Mrs. Clarke and Mr. Schaefer all profess to love.