Winning a Chance to Be a Loser

September 03, 1995|By BARRY RASCOVAR

In politics, timing is everything. Just ask Mary Pat Clarke.

Suddenly, she's on a roll. Her biggest allies are discontent among Baltimore City voters and the difficulty any incumbent has running for a third term.

Momentum seems to be on her side. A big newspaper endorsement. Unexpected money pouring in. High-visibility crime stories blaring over television night after night by stations eager to boost their ratings at any cost. One episode after another pointing to more disarray and incompetence in the city schools. Polls showing Ms. Clarke sneaking up on Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

All this despite one of the most superficial campaigns imaginable. One Clarke TV ad has her telling supporters that she's running for mayor ''because I live here.'' The city's broke and it needs fixing. That's about as deep as the Clarke candidacy goes in trying to address city problems.

Yet it seems to be working. The ABS crowd is rallying around her. Anybody But Schmoke. He's been in office eight years and the city's woes are multiplying, not diminishing. He's been in office eight years and a shadow government of political allies is giving the mayor a black eye. He's been in office eight years and made enemies. Now it is payback time.

The timing couldn't be better for Ms. Clarke. She benefits from all these developments. She has a team of veteran political organizers who know Baltimore from the ground up and may well pull off this upset.

Of course, the Clarke surge could wind up simply making what was once a runaway into a tight race, with the mayor once more winning by a narrow margin. The organizing skills and get-out-the-vote work of Schmoke operative Larry S. Gibson remain a key advantage. And the depth of discontent among older black voters has yet to be tested. Their loyalty to the city's first elected black mayor may yet rescue Mr. Schmoke.

But just as timing is crucial for the two candidates in this mayoral election, the victor is likely to discover it's a dreadful time to be mayor of a declining urban city.

The winner on September 12 could wind up as the loser.

Cities across the nation are in trouble. Big trouble. Crime remains endemic. Schools remain disgraceful. Property values remain depressed. Tax bases are shrinking. And the Republican Congress is about to pull the financial rug out from under urban America.

Gov. Parris Glendening's message to county and city leaders last month illustrates what's going to happen.

Maryland will lose $34 million in education dollars (special education, drug programs, teacher training, school lunches); Medicare cuts will come in Meals on Wheels and senior centers and services; less federal aid is likely for improving drinking-water systems, wastewater- and water-treatment plants, the Chesapeake Bay pollution cleanup, transit operating funds and public housing. Less money for research grants will go to Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland. Military-base closings will mean a loss of 3,300 jobs.

A total of $2.4 billion in federal aid will evaporate over the next seven years. Most of that money supports local programs. The jurisdictions in greatest need will probably get hit the hardest.

Baltimore will suffer. At a time when many more drug-treatment slots are essential, there will be less money to do the job. At a time when more policing is imperative, money is being withdrawn, not increased. At a time when schools need all the help they can get, outside aid is diminishing.

On top of that, the governor has promised an income-tax cut next year. That will happen by freezing most agency spending -- much of which goes to local programs -- and cutting the growth in local aid dramatically.

Things will only worsen in the rest of this decade. That's when Republicans in Washington must get serious about massive cuts to balance the federal budget. Well-off suburban counties can adjust, but the city has little flexibility. It has the weakest tax base; substantial cuts in programs will be felt immediately in neighborhoods. It means a declining standard of living.

That's what the winner for mayor can expect. The president and Congress as well as the governor and General Assembly can slash away at spending, but the real losers are the local governments. They're the ones forced to deal with the consequences. For an impoverished urban center such as Baltimore, the situation is far from cheery. The next mayor may wonder why he or she ever wanted the job at this discouraging stage in Baltimore's evolution.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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