The Schmoke Tragedy CAMPAIGN 1995

September 03, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- On the eve of his probable renomination to a third term as mayor of Baltimore, it might be an overstatement, as well as ungracious, to describe the political career of Kurt Schmoke as an American tragedy. But it's still a sad, sad tale.

For most of his life, Mr. Schmoke was a young man of singular promise. From high school on, great things were expected of him, and as the years passed he appeared to be achieving them. First as an athlete, then as a scholar, finally as a professional man and public servant, he was recognized as somebody special.

All this success made him an inspiration, especially to young black people cynical about their opportunities in what seemed to be a white man's world. And when he first entered politics, he seemed a person behind whom Baltimoreans of different races and ideological persuasions could unite.

It was true that some of the city's more confrontational blacks were suspicious from the start of his Yale-Oxford-Harvard Law resume, his polite and lawyerly diction, his conservative suits and ties. He talked and dressed white, in other words, and he had a white education; in their view he could hardly have been a more inappropriate candidate for office in a predominantly black city if he'd had blond hair and blue eyes.

But this was not the prevailing perspective. Blacks in general were much more likely to respond to Mr. Schmoke with pride than with suspicion. And many white voters, tired of being called racist in the past because they had found candidates like Billy Murphy or Parren Mitchell unappealing, or perhaps only because they had objected to loud music or obscene speech on the bus, voted for him with real enthusiasm.

The early white support for Kurt Schmoke was closely related to the white support pollsters find today for Colin Powell. To many white Baltimoreans, especially those for whom politics is a secondary concern, Mr. Schmoke seemed to be a self-confident man of demonstrated ability who wouldn't use race as an excuse any time he got into a jam.

Such voters, unlike those doctrinaire liberal whites who vote automatically for any black candidate over any white one in order to affirm the correctness of their own principles, tend to believe strongly in the ideal of a color-blind society.

They believe people should be treated the same regardless of their race, whether they are seeking a job, buying a house, disturbing the peace or running for office. And if some members of one group have been unjustly treated in the past, they'll tell you, it's hardly justice to guarantee them preferential treatment in the future.

This is not an extremist perspective. Although it may not be reflected in much of the big national media, it's an ordinary, middle-of-the-road American viewpoint, and politicians who scorn it do so at their peril. It was part of the promise of Mr. Schmoke in his early days as a city politician that he seemed to understand this -- not instinctively, maybe, but intellectually.

But the promise ebbed away. Somewhere along the line, Mr. Schmoke gradually decided that he would not be a unifying politician, he would be a polarizing one. He would pander, in the coarsest way, to the old racial animosities so dear to the hearts of the people who used to mock him for dressing and talking white -- and who probably still do, behind his back.

In the short run it can be argued that this decision makes hard political sense. For years Baltimore has been simmering like a pot of coffee unattended on the stove; there's not much left in it but a bitter residue nobody much wants. This is the constituency to which the mayor now mostly speaks, and it's clearly receptive to the rhetoric of polarization. It will probably elect him once again, and the simmering will continue.

It didn't have to be this way. But for month after month, year after year, those middle-of-the-road Baltimoreans -- not all of them white -- who voted for Mr. Schmoke with such hope and enthusiasm in the early days of his political career kept leaving the city, and the mayor did nothing about it.

Maybe he couldn't, by himself, have stopped the hemorrhage of productive residents, eliminated crime, salvaged the schools, and restored efficiency and civility to municipal government. But he came to office with enormous political capital, and he invested none of it in his city's greatest needs.

And it's a funny thing. Although he never spent that capital, it's gone anyway. It just sort of dribbled away. Politically, this once-promising young American leader is now as bankrupt as the city itself.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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