Campaign divided races, Schmoke must unite them

September 14, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Are we happy now? Did we tell each other how much we don't like each other's skin color in Tuesday's election? Are we still telling ourselves -- wink, wink -- that we voted strictly on Serious Issues in the race for mayor of Baltimore, or have we now officially kissed off the thing that everyone claims to hate, which is favoritism based on race?

In black Forest Park, Kurt Schmoke got 92 percent of the vote. In white Locust Point, Mary Pat Clarke got 96 percent of the vote. In black Cherry Hill, Kurt Schmoke got 90 percent of the vote. In white Hampden, Mary Pat Clarke got 91 percent of the vote. In black Rosemont and in Ashburton, Schmoke got 89 and 88 percent respectively. In white Canton and in Hamilton, Clarke got 88 and 90 percent.

This wasn't Kurt L. Schmoke against Bull Connor, nor was it Mary Pat Clarke against Louis Farrakhan. It was two candidates, whose personal lives and public records are known to every voter, who are products of the same great mid-century liberal Democrat, civil rights, let's-all-learn-to-live-together-in- racial-harmony crusade.

And yet, in one neighborhood after another, what seems to have mattered in the voting booth was race. Kurt L. Schmoke walks away with his 20-point primary election victory, feeling wonderful politically but, if he's as smart and as sensitive as we've always assumed, not so wonderful about the message he sent or the way it's been perceived in the city he's been renominated to lead.

"I ask the mayor to bring us together," Mary Pat Clarke said in her concession speech Tuesday. Nobody needed simultaneous translation. She made mistakes in this campaign -- she told us what was wrong with the city, but never articulated what she would do to fix it -- but she clearly attempted to bring people together on race.

"I have to reach out to groups and talk about things that unite us instead of divide us," Kurt L. Schmoke said on election night. He also talked yesterday of the "need for some healing." Everybody hopes he means it.

His was a calculatedly divisive campaign, in which the much-discussed African liberation colors were only the most consistent factor. His housing commissioner, Daniel Henson, made callous remarks about race, which the mayor chose to ignore. His campaign manager, Larry Gibson, made repugnant comments about Clarke burying her father with a black undertaker for political gain. The mayor knew the undertaker was a Clarke family friend and fellow parishioner, but he let the remark circulate.

There were Schmoke playing cards in which all the faces were of blacks, and a campaign book with dozens of photographs, almost all of which were of blacks, and a gubernatorial endorsement rally outside City Hall at which Parris N. Glendening was the only white person among scores of people around the mayor.

Such things are staged very carefully. And such a message, while politically successful in a city with majority-black voters, leaves questions about the city's emotions in the aftermath. A lot of people -- blacks as well as whites -- think he did serious damage to notions of a color-blind community and to the message of the last several decades that we learn to remove old divisions or suffer painfully for them. This city's not feeling so good about itself right now, and this campaign hasn't helped. On election night, his voice hoarse from exhaustion but soaring with exhilaration, Schmoke told his supporters it was time to "take a section of our block and clean it up . . . make sure we kick those drug dealers off the corners . . ."

He had more passion in his voice than many could ever remember. This is, in many ways, a very buttoned-down man. His emotions are not for public display. But, after eight years, he must understand that his job entails more than cloistering himself and his emotions in his City Hall office. A city draws its identity, its sense of daily life, from messages sent by its parental figures. We want to be told why we should feel good about ourselves. We want to hear about our shared lives, our mutual dependence and opportunity.

This summer's campaign diminished Kurt Schmoke and his city. If the mayor learned from it, we need to find out. He said Tuesday night and yesterday that he wants to bring us together. We welcome all gestures, we hunger for them. He needs to let us know that this campaign was an aberration, which we can put behind us.

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