A City That Needs A Friend in Annapolis

September 17, 1995|By BARRY RASCOVAR

That giant sigh of relief on election night last week came not so much from Kurt Schmoke -- whose internal polls always showed him safely ahead in the race for mayor -- as from Gov. Parris Glendening. A Schmoke loss could have left Mr. Glendening in a precarious political position down the road.

There was good reason for the governor to wrap his arms around Mr. Schmoke in the campaign for mayor. They are political friends of long standing. Mr. Schmoke helped deliver a crucial vote for Mr. Glendening last year. And the governor felt that challenger Mary Pat Clarke was not up to the job and would be difficult to work with.

Mr. Glendening needs Baltimore. In his last election, he only carried three jurisdictions -- the city and Montgomery and P.G. counties. His support in those two counties has been seriously undercut by the fiscal mess in P.G. since Mr. Glendening left office there and by the lingering outrage over the generous pensions Glendening & Co. created for themselves. Only in the city has Mr. Glendening preserved his base of support. But his ability to get a big city vote is largely dependent on the Schmoke organization's success. Thus, Tuesday night's substantial Schmoke victory is welcome news for the governor.

Still, there are warning signals. The vote split along racial lines, which makes governance far more difficult. The vote in white communities for Ms. Clarke came from disaffected and dissatisfied residents. Unless their distress eases, they could become Republican votes in the next gubernatorial election. Mr. Glendening needs heavy support from both black and white city residents to win a second term.

Baltimore no longer dominates Maryland politics. Its declining population and loss of jobs and corporate headquarters has robbed the city of its considerable influence. The suburbs now rule.

But the city still serves as the glue that holds together this metro region -- and the state. Local television news broadcasts spend most of their time and film footage on city-related events. Residents in the counties still pick up the newspaper to find out what's happening in the city where they once lived (and probably their parents before them).

Cal Ripken is not viewed as a Harford countian, but as a Baltimorean. The Baltimore Orioles is a baseball team the entire state follows. The city election rated more news coverage than all the county races last year combined. The museums and concerts and theaters and tourist sites are in the city. So is most of this region's history. And this state's world-class medical center and university. People in the suburbs care about what's happening to Baltimore.

The vote the city can deliver for a candidate -- usually a liberal Democrat -- still is formidable. Few other jurisdictions can match the city in its ability to run up lopsided vote totals for a favored candidate. Mr. Glendening got 75 percent last year, a margin of more than 73,000 votes -- his biggest margin anywhere.

Mr. Schmoke received 59 percent Tuesday, a margin of 29,000. Had Mr. Glendening's winning margin fallen to that level, he would have lost. The governor may need every city vote he can get in his next race -- a lot more than 59 percent.

For that to happen, he's got to be kind to his friend the mayor. And Mr. Schmoke has to mend fences, especially with alienated Baltimoreans who feel they were excluded from the mayor's ''He Makes Us Proud'' campaign. A unified city vote is Baltimore's best political weapon, but that won't happen if there's a feeling of discontent with the city's quality of life and with the city's governance.

Mr. Schmoke has every right to crow about his larger than expected triumph. The Schmoke-Gibson organization cranked out the vote, especially on the west side. All three citywide winners are west-siders. Now comes the hard part: Running a troubled city for four more years.

This is where Mr. Glendening holds the key. If the governor tells the city and counties to swallow the federal-aid cuts coming in the next few years, it will hurt city services. If the governor lowers the state income-tax rate by cutting back on aid flowing to the city and counties, it puts his friend Kurt Schmoke in a bind.

Mr. Schmoke knows that the city, with an impoverished population and a shrinking tax base, cannot absorb large cuts without major loss of services. This can only anger the local populace -- toward Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Glendening.

Is there a way out? Perhaps not. Mr. Glendening seems determined to pass along most of the pain of federal cuts and paying for the income-tax reduction to the localities. While that may seem like sound policy today, it could prove to be unsound political policy by 1998. when an unhappy city electorate gets its next chance to vote -- for governor.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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