Reinventing Schmoke's image More outgoing mayor wages campaign to change his style

Desire to be more open

But critics question whether approach packs durability

October 22, 1995|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

There's a new mayor in Baltimore. At least that's what the old one is out trying to prove.

At Northern High School, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke sat down to lunch and a frank talk with students this month after a shooting in a hallway.

At an elegant business function by the waterfront, Mr. Schmoke deftly woked his way through the crowd of corporate leaders a week ago and lingered to offer advice about the empowerment zone.

At the Million Man March in Washington, Mr. Schmoke was so inspired by the hundreds of thousands of black men rallying Monday that he made an emotional speech urging all to work hand-in-hand toward a better future.

All this from a mayor who has been more guarded than demonstrative and all too often reluctant to cheerlead during his eight years in office.

"I'm trying to change my style," Mr. Schmoke says. "It's hard to say why, but it's just clear that I wasn't coming across as effectively as I thought."

His newfound ease and enthusiasm is partly the result of a conscious attempt to overcome criticism that his studious manner made him seem aloof from some problems of urban life.

But he also was buoyed by his tremendous margin of victory over Council President Mary Pat Clarke in what had been predicted as a closely contested Democratic mayoral primary.

"Maybe, people are noticing a burst of energy because I'm real thrilled about a third term," he says.

Mr. Schmoke, 45, still faces a little-known Republican opponent, Victor Clark Jr., in the Nov. 7 general election. But in Baltimore, where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 9-1, victory in the Democratic primary is tantamount to election.

For the mayor, the campaign of the past month since he trounced Mrs. Clarke, his longtime rival at City Hall, has been as ++ much a personal as a political one.

He has promised a new beginning and has tried to show it by attending more business events and community meetings. Often defensive in the past over the city's spiraling violence and economic decline, he has ordered a more aggressive anti-crime campaign and has appointed an entrepreneur to overhaul the beleaguered economic development agency.

His attempts to loosen up a bit, after years of being seen as cerebral and reserved, have been generally well received. But critics question whether he will follow through and say a change in style is not enough.

"I think he has a real desire to be more available and to be more open," says state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who represents Northwest Baltimore. "If it stays, it will be good."

Prominent downtown leader Walter Sondheim agrees. "The city government needs a face. He's the person that sets policy and determines the way the city responds to issues. The more he's out talking to people, the more people feel a sense of ownership in their government."

Others are skeptical of Mr. Schmoke's plans to reinvent his administration because he's keeping most of the same Cabinet officials, including the often-criticized schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and housing chief Daniel P. Henson III.

"I don't see a great change," says Councilman Martin O'Malley of Northeast Baltimore. "I always thought he was out there a lot, but he goes to these ribbon cuttings, and people complain about something, and a month later nothing is done. We'll have to see if there's more follow-through now."

In the weeks since the primary election, Mr. Schmoke has tacitly acknowledged some of the problems that dogged him during the hard-fought campaign. After defending the large amount of city legal work being done by private law firms, he ordered a review with an eye toward limiting it. He now says a serious crime problem exists in the schools.

He met with Ms. Hoffman and state Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg to discuss improving relations with the Jewish community. Yet Mr. Schmoke also has been demonstrating what Councilman Carl Stokes of East Baltimore calls "more aggressiveness on matters that the black community feels strongly about." One example: targeting the suburban buyers who help keep city drug markets in business.

To some political observers, the mayor's quest is reminiscent of his predecessor, William Donald Schaefer, who vowed to redouble his efforts after defeating lawyer William H. Murphy Jr. in 1983. Mr. Schaefer carried a clipboard to Cabinet meetings and frantically scribbled memos on things he wanted fixed: a littered alley, a broken street light.

But Mr. Schaefer's main goal was to prevent complacency. He remained the same civic booster -- and the same "Mayor Annoyed," known for bouts of imperiousness and sarcasm.

Others suggest Mr. Schmoke is more relaxed because he has moved out of the Schaefer shadow. Throughout Mr. Schmoke's first term and much of his second, he was compared to Mr. Schaefer, then governor of Maryland, and the two had a strained relationship.

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