The City Is Her Stage Mary Pat Clarke rolls into the campaign's final stage CAMPAIGN 1995

August 25, 1995|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

Me and my town,

Battered about,

Everyone in it

Would like to get out.

But me and my town,

& We just wanna be loved

"Me and My Town,"

( Stephen Sondheim musical

"Anyone Can Whistle"

Watching Mary Pat Clarke on the campaign trail, strange thoughts occur, possibly because no one ever gets to eat. She may not become Madame Mayor, but she'd make a great musical. She waves her arms. She tells jokes. She makes wonderful, expressive faces. At parties, she does a mean Electric Slide.

Call it "Mary Pat!" Reunite Andrew Lloyd Webber and Patti LuPone. For the first act finale, let Mrs. Clarke and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke sing that old "Annie Get Your Gun" showstopper, "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better."

Or maybe it's the miasmal weather that has brought on these thoughts. It is one of the hottest days in Baltimore's record-breaking summer and, at 5 p.m., the 54-year-old City Council president is still campaigning. She's already pushed a new curfew bill through a special City Council session and chatted up senior citizens at Roland Park Place. A neighborhood meeting will take up most of her Friday evening.

If it's rush hour, it must be time for "the wave" at a busy intersection. In concession to the 97-degree temperature, she exchanges her silk blouse and jacket for a red "Mary Pat Clarke for Baltimore" T-shirt, but still has on her skirt, hose, high heels and determined smile.

She starts at Charles Street and University Parkway, where a transformer has blown, knocking out traffic lights. After conferring briefly with a public works crew on the scene, she relocates to a grassy median a few blocks south. Apparently not even Mrs. Clarke can get a traffic signal fixed in five minutes.

But the heat doesn't make a dent in her famous energy. She waves delightedly at the afternoon drivers. Some wave, or honk back, others stare slack-jawed from inside their air-conditioned cars as if to ask, Is she crazy?

Is she crazy? Two years ago, Mrs. Clarke set out on what was considered a kamikaze political mission, declaring for the Democratic nomination for mayor. When Mayor Schmoke decided to run for re-election, she didn't back down, although conventional wisdom said a white woman could not beat an incumbent black mayor in Baltimore.

Today, with the Sept. 12 primary less than three weeks away, Mary Pat Clarke looks crazy like a fox. This week a Mason-Dixon poll shows Mrs. Clarke within six points of the mayor, narrowing a gap that had been 15 points only a month earlier. Money is flowing into the campaign and, win or lose, this one-time teacher is teaching the old-time pols quite a lesson.

Race and gender may prove to be less important to this race than sheer style. Mrs. Clarke and Mayor Schmoke, never pals, make an interesting contrast. Hot vs. cool, fast vs. deliberate, grass-roots vs. buttoned-down. Asked repeatedly by voters to explain how she is different from Mr. Schmoke, Mrs. Clarke says: "Simple. I'll get things done."

That's this unabashed liberal's stock in trade. The queen of can do, the princess of potholes, the Tinkerbell of the tangible. Everyone in the city has her number -- literally. They call her at home, all hours of the night. Water main busted, street needs paving, suburban kids prowling for drugs in your neighborhood? Call Mary Pat.

It's a tricky legacy, one she wants to embrace and transcend. Yes, she gets things fixed. But she also needs to prove she has that most intangible of political qualities, leadership.

Twenty years ago, she was coaxed into her first race by Alfred Barry and Joyce Leviton, two friends from the New Democratic Club. The mother of four children, ages 5 through 10, she had never given a thought to running for office. Everyone always assumed her husband, Joe, was the future office-holder.

But as her friends lobbied her, she began to see the idea's appeal. She agreed to run. Since then, Mary Pat Clarke's name has been on city ballots every four years, first in the 2nd District, then for council president. She hasn't always won, but she's always come back.

Stores are for rent,

Theaters are dark,

Grass on the sidewalks

But not in the park,

Me and my town,

' We just wanna be loved!

Joe and Mary Pat Clarke, two small children in tow, arrived in Baltimore on a gray, dismal day in March 1967. Mr. Clarke, who had been born in the city, was looking forward to his homecoming and his new job in management at WCBM radio.

Mrs. Clarke was happy for her husband, but dismayed at the dreary landscape before her. It looked like a bleak place to put down roots. And this was before the riots of 1968.

Born Mary Patricia Hines in Providence, R.I., in 1941, to a chemical engineer and a social worker, the young mother had lived in several places in her life, but considered the Philadelphia area home. It was there, at age 14, she met and began dating J. Joseph Clarke, just six months older.

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