Schmoke Plays Down Pro-Business Image to Fend Off Challenge NO MORE MR. NICE GUY

June 11, 1995|By C. FRASER SMITH

When Alex. Brown Inc. announced it would stay in downtown Baltimore recently, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke might well have ordered a ticker-tape parade.

Nearing the end of his second term and running for a third, he might have recited moves made by his administration to retain the brokerage firm's 920 jobs and the millions of dollars in leases, lunches and taxes it puts in circulation.

His opponent, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, peppers him for doing little to shore up the employment base. Others had criticized him for letting USF&G leave its Inner Harbor tower.

So here was an opportunity for Mr. Schmoke to declare, "Baltimore's holding its own, thanks to my leadership."

But he was nowhere to be seen or heard. His tepid comments on the firm's decision were conveyed by a spokesperson.

After eight years, the city has stopped waiting for its incumbent mayor to be a cheerleader -- not one of his strengths. But this is campaign season, three months from primary election day, so Mr. Schmoke's failure to crow loudly, immediately and in person seems explainable only as a part of a conscious and curious political strategy.

For him, good economic news can actually be bad in some quarters -- and fighting with businessmen has become a hallmark of his re-election effort in 1995. Business, the jobs it provides and the campaign contributions it makes have always been important to politicians. But for Mr. Schmoke, whose 1995 fund is robust, that alliance has been less important.

Whether they come or go, the Schmoke campaign seems to have concluded, business leaders, stock brokers and conventions will have little to do with the mayor's re-election prospects. Quite the contrary, perhaps.

His absence from the symbolic stage erected by Alex. Brown offers the most recent example. It came soon after his decision to seize control of the city's Convention Board. In both situations, he seemed anxious to say, "I'm not a part of the business crowd. They're not order ing me around. I'm not doing them any special favors."

Thus in the Alex. Brown situation, the usual good news photo op with the mayor and the happy CEO might have communicated too much closeness. His opponent is a neighborhood-based constituent service provider regarded by some as a populist.

Mr. Schmoke's image has always been different. A graduate of Harvard (undergrad) and Yale (law), his resume is an asset with a downside: He has been dogged by the suggestion that he is a bit aloof, separated from workaday Baltimoreans and their concerns. His campaign-year confrontations with businessmen seem designed to counter this view.

Mr. Schmoke might have applauded the civic commitment of A. B. "Buzzy" Krongard, Alex. Brown's chief operating officer. Mr. Krongard would then have returned the compliment, citing diligent efforts to accommodate his firm. Such courtesies are usually exchanged even when hard bargaining gives the words a bitter taste -- as it apparently did in this case.

Snub for snub

The company pointedly declined to take much public credit for ** its decision to stay -- a decision that might still be changed.

The Schmoke administration's contribution to this testy atmosphere seems doubly perplexing, aside from its political dimension, because so many corporations have moved away. And, again, because it was not the first time the Schmoke administration seemed to be at war with business.

A thoughtful man of mild manner and cool rhetoric, Mr. Schmoke has been uncommonly combative this year, as if his unofficial slogan had become "No More Mr. Nice Guy."

Business and Schaefer

He took on Henry Rosenberg, the Crown Central Petroleum owner and civic volunteer who headed the Convention Board. In this action, the mayor may have had two objectives: In addition to the divorce from business, he was taking a shot at Mr. Rosenberg's friend, William Donald Schaefer, who then seemed to be considering another run for mayor.

Mr. Schaefer tells all who will listen that Baltimore is failing and urges businessmen to believe change of any kind is preferable to four more years of Mr. Schmoke -- even if the alternative is Mrs. Clarke, a figure whose populism and volatility have frightened them in the past.

Mr. Schmoke challenged Mr. Schaefer to get into the race or shut up -- and promised, if the former mayor and governor took the bait, to prove that the Schaefer-led renaissance was mostly "myth."

By now, it seems certain Mr. Schaefer will not run: His old team is not rushing about organizing and coyly denying his intentions. And he's helping Mrs. Clarke, making critiques that allow her to stand above the early mudslinging -- and actively raising money for her campaign. He will host a fund-raiser for her soon.

As for Mr. Schmoke, a number of political figures in Baltimore say confronting business meshes with the appeal to African-American ethnic pride. Though he has always been able to draw significant votes from white neighborhoods, his focus this year has been black voters.

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