Schmoke starts over, again

November 26, 1995|By Barry Rascovar

KURT SCHMOKE stands at a crossroads in his political XTC career. On the verge of taking the oath of office for a third term as Baltimore's mayor, he can either use this as an opportunity to expand his horizons or accept the fact he's in a dead-end job.

Yes, this is the most powerful post in the city, but it's far from the most rewarding. Baltimore's problems are severe, and in many respects getting worse.

It has become increasingly clear that Mr. Schmoke has gone about as far as he can in the political world running as a black politician in a majority-black city. His divisive re-election this year clearly showed the extent of his reliance on one segment of the community for success at the polls.

A run for higher office would be an open invitation to city-bashers and conservatives to use the mayor as a punching bag for his exclusionary re-election campaign. Mr. Schmoke won't play well in suburbia. His liberalism is sharply at odds with the skeptical, cautious approach favored in the counties that now rule Maryland. He has isolated himself from the state's mainstream.

Compounding the situation is the mayor's disappointing performance in eight years as mayor. The best that can be said is that he has failed to live up to expectations.

During his watch, crime and drugs have turned parts of the city into the Wild West. During his watch, the public schools have reached new lows. Under his watch, the middle class -- white and black families -- has fled the city. Property values are plunging. Businesses are jumping ship. Federal and state budget cuts could make matters far worse.

Mr. Schmoke has to reassess his job performance. It is time for some early New Year's resolutions.

Mayor of all Baltimore

For starters, he must go out of his way to repair the damage his last campaign did in the city's white communities. If Mr. Schmoke cannot be mayor of all Baltimore, this next term could be fraught with peril.

He also has some tough uphill battles to win -- finally turning around the schools, making strong inroads on crime and violence, establishing bonds of understanding with the business community, wringing economies out of the still-bloated city bureaucracy and ending the corruption and incompetence of the city's housing efforts.

Yet none of this can happen until the mayor recognizes his own shortcomings. He's not much of an administrator. He has failed to put together a first-rate staff. What he needs is a no-nonsense ''city manager'' -- equivalent to a county administrator -- to run government without getting bogged down in questions of race or politics. To make it work, though, the mayor would have to give this manager his full support.

Mr. Schmoke also needs some aides with the energy and skill to make city government the kind of ''do it now'' operation it once was under William Donald Schaefer, especially on matters relating to businesses and economic development. Even in a city strapped for funds, there are innovative and imaginative ways to offer companies deals so good they can't turn Baltimore down. But the mayor has to give these aides the authority to make things happen.

That means breaking the stranglehold of Mr. Schmoke's friends on key government decisions.

Larry Gibson may be the mayor's political guru but the time has come to limit his role. The same holds true for the law firm of Shapiro and Olander. Lynette Young, the mayor's top staffer and longtime aide, should have her job more narrowly defined, especially if a city manager is hired to run day-to-day operations. Finally, Mr. Schmoke must rein in his rambunctious housing czar, Daniel Henson, a man with creativity, drive and determination -- but also a man of poor judgment and limited political vision. He's a real asset if the mayor keeps Mr. Henson under control.

As personable and intelligent as Mr. Schmoke is, these traits aren't enough to succeed as mayor of Baltimore in the 1990s. Now is the time for Kurt Schmoke to reinvent himself, to rethink his modus operandi and to strike out in more creative and forceful directions in his third term.


Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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