Schmoke: a source of pride and of nagging doubts

September 05, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The sadness that surrounds Kurt L. Schmoke is partly in his performance and partly inside our heads. No one could live up to the expectations Schmoke brought with him to office. Superman, he's not. And few cities with the toxic problems of a Baltimore can be turned around by any single person, particularly one with his reluctant public personality.

The polls say the race for mayor tightens beyond expectations, but maybe the polls are wrong. Maybe he'll yet pull together the nervous remnants of this city's electorate. But to watch Schmoke now is to witness a man in great discomfort.

He debated Mary Pat Clarke on Kweisi Mfume's television show a few weeks back and sat hunched over, as though expecting punches to the midsection. He stood outside City Hall 10 days ago, at the Parris Glendening endorsement, and stared at the ground as one speaker after another extolled him. Let's get this over with, he seemed to tell himself, and then delivered a speech that lasted less than four minutes.

He knows what he represents, not only to black people but whites as well. He is the most important figure of our time in this city, not only the best of his generation produced by Baltimore's schools, not only the superior athlete and leader, not only the Harvard-Yale-Oxford man, but the first elected black mayor, whose legacy was not merely to preside at City Hall but to show us all, believers and bigots, that a black man could take the heat, could unravel the complexities of government, could lead the community's multiple races and cultures.

Now, with the city's crime a terrifying thing, with the taxes choking us, with the jobs disappearing, with the business community upset, with the middle class continuing its march to suburbia, he hears the harsh accusation that he attempts to save himself by playing the race card.

The charge haunts him, and in turn haunts us. We wish to hold on to our image of him as the best representation of all of us. Ethnic support figures into all campaigns but should not seem to dwarf all other calculations, as this one has.

It pains the mayor when he hears such talk. He knows the edginess that provokes it, knows the calculations that fueled it and backfired, and so publicly reminds us, he's never played that game. We want to believe him. His whole inspiring history was fueled by the melting pot experience, by the belated sputterings of American democracy finally giving black people a chance, and look at this splendid man who was produced.

He reminds us that he's been the whole city's mayor. So why, many ask, do we have this nagging, uncomfortable feeling about this year's campaign? He must have fallen in with bad fellows, we tell ourselves, and ask a delicate question: Has he changed, or do we hold black candidates to a different set of standards than whites?

In either case, he has a tangible eight-year record. Just as any politician takes credit for the community's successes, the defeats also count. This mayor has been the earnest, hard-working, adult extension of the student he used to be. But sometimes, you want to grab him by the lapels and say, "There's a whole city out there. Get out of the office! Remind them why they should like you!"

The most important political facts are those that are inside our heads. It was William Donald Schaefer's genius to rearrange those facts, to tell us we were doing fine when we suspected in our bones that we weren't.

This mayor has never figured that out: Leadership entails stepping out a little, stopping work on the long-range urban grants for a while, letting people know you understand the urgency of each moment, the collection of trash and the seduction of business people who hear suburbia's call, and also telling them why they should feel good about the place where they live. Such declarations can take on a life of their own.

In their absence, we're left with the inevitable daily shudders: the newspaper stories of business departures, the TV news clips where mothers shriek over their murdered children.

Sometimes, Kurt Schmoke is a great source of community pride. He falters, though, in some of the people he keeps around him. He falters in failing to sell himself, failing to convince us that things have gotten better, or will get better soon, failing to provide verifiable evidence of progress on crime and clean streets, and failing to call upon the best of all of us in a season when this city feels more divided than it should.

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