The New Permanent Mayor

September 16, 1995|By DANIEL BERGER

In his enthusiasm on becoming mayor eight years ago, Kurt L. Schmoke cautioned against thinking of him as a permanent mayor. Two terms should be enough. He had other things to accomplish, more worlds to conquer.

But game plans change in mid-game. Never mind what Mr. Schmoke originally thought he could achieve for the city and its people. This time, he wanted to go on being mayor for the sake of being mayor because that is what he does.

Mr. Schmoke is vindicated.

Incumbent mayors normally win, often against mere token opposition. But there was widespread carping on all sides, criticism by blacks and whites, a sense of urgency going unaddressed, white and black flight.

This fueled an opposition that was taken seriously, in behalf of a popular politician who had not always been.

Mary Pat Clarke won endorsement from former Gov. William Donald Schaefer and The Sun. The polls reported a momentum that, projected forward to Primary Day, suggested she had a real chance.

Against that expectation, Mr. Schmoke's 59.4 percent of the Democratic vote was no warning shot across his bow. It was a personal and political triumph.

Mr. Schmoke taught his critics something, and not vice versa. (The trouble pollsters have identifying who will vote in a city primary is part of it.)

This was also a triumph for Mr. Schmoke's campaign manager, Larry Gibson, who out-planned, out-organized, out-hustled and out-messaged the nay-sayers.

The result is good news for Gov. Parris Glendening and President Clinton. The organization anchored in the black electorates of Baltimore City and Prince George's County is ready to deliver Maryland again.

If Mr. Schmoke is now Baltimore's permanent mayor, he can borrow a trick from the last one, Mr. Schaefer. Such as shaking up his administration after a victory, to keep it alert and vigorous, so the regime stays young while the man ages. Mr. Schmoke has dropped hints of that.

But if the mayor remains in place, city government is transformed by this election, as federal government was by the midterm congressional elections of 1994.

The new City Council president is a young man with two terms of experience on the council. The comptroller is new to public life and virtually unknown. The top three officers of city government for the first time are all black, and all young. Mr. Schmoke, at 45, is the old guy.

The City Council of 18 members has seven new ones and two appointed before election. For practical purposes, its majority is new. In such transformations, institutional memories fade, tradition loosens its hold and new ways may arise.

You would almost think that the Western Republican idea of term limits had taken hold here. This election sees the departure from public life of such familiar faces as Mary Pat Clarke, Julian Lapides, Carl Stokes, Joseph DiBlasi, Vera Hall and Wilbur Cunningham, not to mention retirees Mike Curran and Iris Reeves.

Occasionally a departed elected official comes back, like the once and future City Council member (and state senator) Robert Douglass. But most if not all of those people are leaving the stage for good.

Their replacements are front and center: Lawrence Bell, Joan Pratt and the new Council members eager to make their mark and move up as smartly as Mr. Bell did.

Mr. Schmoke must still struggle with the issues that Mrs. Clarke tried to clobber him with, such as education, crime, declining services and high taxes.

But the main thing is that the city is depopulating. For Sale signs in white middle-class neighborhoods are exceeded only by boarded-up vacancies in poor black neighborhoods.

Business is downsizing and vanishing. The business leadership that created Charles Center and supported the Inner Harbor hardly exists and, to the extent it does, is metropolitan rather than city-minded.

No mayor can personally overcome nationwide trends. But some manage them better than others. Cleveland, blessed by rust-belt recovery throughout the Midwest, is on a roll with Mayor Mike White.

Possibly, just possibly, Baltimore's decline is bottoming out as property values drop to the point of attracting new development. Whoever is in charge when that reversal is perceived will get a lot of credit.

Baltimore needs a new mayor, and has just chosen Mr. Schmoke to be it.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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