There's no winner in Schmoke's battle against Bell

November 10, 1995|By R. B. Jones

IT COULDN'T COME at a worse time. Federal cuts loom and Maryland's Democratic governor is sounding more like a Republican everyday, saying local jurisdictions will feel the pain of the cuts. Meanwhile, the prospects for Baltimore City's economic growth are bleak. At this moment -- with the fiscal wolves at the door -- Mayor Kurt Schmoke has decided to declare war on Lawrence A. Bell III, the incoming president of the Baltimore City Council.

The war is as unnecessary as it is inevitable. Mayor Schmoke wants a malleable council that will not challenge him on even the most obvious issues. (This may take some doing since one-third of the council's 18 members are newly elected, mostly without the mayor's help.) Mr. Schmoke has picked unnecessary fights with Lawrence Bell before and like the cobra and the mongoose these two are poised to fight to the finish.

Shot across the bow

One of the first shots Kurt Schmoke fired in this political war was the recent appointment of Vera Hall as the mayor's council liaison, a position that puts her into constant contact with Mr. Bell, who defeated her and several others for council president in the September primary. Mr. Bell responded to this Schmoke appointment with his characteristic out-spokenness, calling it a breach of a public pact between the two men to end years of political feuding.

As council colleagues, Ms. Hall and Mr. Bell were often on opposite sides of issues. Ms. Hall is a die-hard Schmoke loyalist who ran for the council presidency at the urging of Mr. Schmoke.

While it was unlikely that Messrs. Bell and Schmoke would ever see eye-to-eye on many issues, many city residents had hoped that the warm afterglow of the October 16th Million Man March in Washington would cause these two ''brothers'' to make peace with each other. It is not to be.

Not only has Mayor Schmoke extended the primary election of 1995 indefinitely with the Hall appointment, but he also has sought to further undermine Mr. Bell by pushing to have 4th District Councilwoman Sheila Dixon elected council vice president. Mr. Bell and Ms. Dixon have a very stormy relationship that has frequently gotten acrimonious. For example, Mr. Bell was the only victorious black council candidate not invited to the post-primary election get-together sponsored by the African-American Coalition of the City Council. The council will // elect its vice president next month.

In this political war, Mayor Schmoke and his political advisers know exactly what they are doing. These moves are meant to cripple Mr. Bell's effectiveness as a city government leader and hinder his likely challenge of Mayor Schmoke for the city's top office in 1999.

Politically, it is not a smart move on Mr. Schmoke's part. Kurt Schmoke should have extended an olive branch to Mr. Bell long before now to help remove him as a political threat and to stop the feuding that hinders the city's legislative process. A perfect opportunity for such a move was June 1994, when Mr. Bell sought to replace Jacqueline McLean as comptroller after her well-publicized misdeeds forced her resignation.

The mayor engaged in some political arm-twisting in an attempt to get his candidate Iris Reeves, of the 5th District, elected by the council to serve out Ms. McLean's term. The council deadlocked at nine votes each for Mr. Bell and Ms. Reeves and Councilman Nick D'Adamo demonstrated his intestinal fortitude by abstaining from voting. As a result, neither candidate won and Ms. McLean's assistant, Shirley Williams, remained as acting comptroller.

A politically shrewd mayor would have allowed Mr. Bell to become comptroller. It is a much weaker position to launch a campaign for mayor from than the council presidency, which provides one a bully pulpit to comment on the city's pressing needs via cable television every week. With the newly resurrected investigative function of the council and a new sense of independence pervading that body, there could be some rocky times ahead for the Schmoke administration, which has failed to rid itself of its arrogant and incompetent officials.

A civil war

Of course, the real losers in this political war are city residents who will see their government divided by fratricidal warfare at the critical point that the federal government has decided to abdicate its responsibilities to the poor. At a time that Gov. Parris N. Glendening is talking about not making up for the expected large cuts in state services due to a drop in federal aid, the two top elected officials in Baltimore should be prepared to present a united front to the legislature and the public.

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