Down-home vs. buttoned-down: Mayoral foes a study in contrasts CAMPAIGN 1995

September 01, 1995|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writer

He's given six speeches, he hasn't had a chance to eat, and he's just been drenched at a fire. But Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, somehow as polished and collected as ever, still feels compelled to squeeze in a few handshakes before drying off at City Hall.

There's no time to lose because his rival in the hard-fought mayoral race is across town quite literally running to take over his job.

On Day 74 of her door-to-door campaign, Mary Pat Clarke, the City Council president who is challenging the mayor's bid for a third term, still has the same determined smile and greeting as she sprints down a block to wave to a family.

In Baltimore, which retains a small-town appeal even though it has a population of more than 700,000, the folksy gesture often matters as much as the slick commercial in elections.

In a city where people expect to know their mayor almost as well as their car mechanic, politics is so local that it's next door. The smile and salute from the street corner, the hello and handshake are fleeting but indispensable. After all, Baltimore became accustomed to the beaming and mugging of William Donald Schaefer during his 15 years as mayor.

"In cities like Chicago or New York, it's really a big deal to see the mayor. In Baltimore, it's not," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College. "There's an expectation of a very personal style of government."

It's just that notion that he and other political scientists credit for helping Mrs. Clarke whittle the mayor's early 15 percentage point lead in voter surveys to six points.

Mrs. Clarke's momentum may have as much to do with her tireless, personalized campaign style as with her hard-hitting message that Baltimore is worse off since Mr. Schmoke took office eight years ago, analysts said.

Curbside politicking comes naturally to Mrs. Clarke, 54, a liberal and populist who built her reputation out in the neighborhoods relating to people and resolving their complaints about potholes, abandoned cars and weed-filled lots.

A summer of glad-handing at picnics and parades is clearly less enjoyable for Mr. Schmoke, 45, the bespectacled, buttoned-down lawyer who is the city's first elected black mayor and is known for his thoughtful approach to urban policy.

Yet, with Mrs. Clarke's crisscrossing the city seven days a week in search of every elusive vote, Mr. Schmoke has to seize on every spare moment to shake another hand.

He has to run the city, too, which leaves him with less time, and he doesn't share her obvious enthusiasm for being surrounded by crowds.

His schedule is more official: a ribbon-cutting, a Cabinet meeting, an orientation session for new teachers. Hers is more down home: a breakfast with business leaders, a trip to Lexington Market, a block party. She always budgets several hours for door-to-door campaigning.

These days, even though Mr. Schmoke had curtailed knocking on doors to concentrate on visits to senior centers and community festivals, he is fitting in plenty of impromptu stops in the streets.

Is his heart still in it? Running for the city's top office a third time, defending his record against relentless attacks from Mrs. Clarke, knowing that there aren't simple solutions to the persistent problems of poverty, crime, unemployment?

The mayor has an unequivocal answer: Yes. He says he wants to see the projects he has begun come to fruition: the rebuilding of Lafayette Courts now that the high-rise public housing project has been demolished, the revitalization of poor neighborhoods with the $100 million federal empowerment zone grant, the efforts in local schools.

On the campaign trail, however, even as he flashes his big smile, the mayor looks a little uncomfortable. He says he enjoys meeting people, and he often lingers to jot down notes about a broken light or vacant home he sees, but Mr. Schmoke acknowledges, "I enjoy the governing side more than the campaigning side."

Mrs. Clarke, in contrast, could not be more at ease as she darts in and out of houses and shops. Even her most persistent critics admire her energetic and charismatic campaign style.

She showed up on the doorstep of Clinton R. Coleman, the

mayor's spokesman, one night -- she just happened to be knocking on doors in his neighborhood.

She can cover a city block in minutes, leaving people with the impression that she has had a personal conversation with them. "I'm always out talking to people because that's my job, and that's how I am," she says.

Saturday afternoon, a band played as she marched in tennis shoes past abandoned buildings on North Avenue.

George Hines, 43, who is unemployed and looking for a job, hugged her and followed her down the street.

"She's more concerned about the community and building it back up. You can tell she's here for us," he said. "Mayor Schmoke, he would have four bodyguards, and he wouldn't have shook everyone's hand."

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