Bell, Schmoke forge 'refreshing' relationship Longtime adversaries build on compromise

September 15, 1996|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III may never be considered political allies, and they are hardly close friends. But they are turning out to be far from the persistent adversaries and bitter foes that recent political history suggested they would be.

A year after winning convincing victories in the Democratic primaries -- Schmoke on his way to his third term as mayor and Bell to a first as council president -- the city's two most powerful elected officials seem on the verge of entering an era of good feeling not seen at City Hall in nearly a decade.

Over the past three months, they have built on the spirit of compromise they first displayed during the spring budget deliberations. Although both men say the nature of their jobs makes some conflicts inevitable, they clearly have bridged the wide gulf that had separated them and have forged a relationship they describe with words such as "refreshing" and "constructive."

"In the last few months, we've communicated a lot more than we did in the last several years," says Bell, who as a 4th District councilman was regularly at odds with Schmoke during the mayor's first two terms.

"We've found ways to disagree without being disagreeable," is the way Schmoke puts it.

That has meant a season in which both carefully have refrained from direct criticism of each other, at the same time that they have been making quiet accommodations:

* After residents of East Baltimore erupted in anger when the City Council adjourned without giving final approval for $34 million in federal loan money to rebuild their communities, the mayor did not lash out at the council president's leadership. Instead, he met privately with Bell and community leaders; Bell ,, later called the council into special session to pass the bill.

* In seeking a way to bring down Baltimore's stubbornly high homicide rate, Bell, who in 1993 called for the resignation of then-Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods over the issue, did not attack Schmoke or Woods' successor, Thomas C. Frazier. Rather, he sent a delegation of council members to New York to highlight that city's success with a "zero tolerance" policy toward minor crimes.

Frazier later announced he wanted to expand the number of nuisance infractions the Police Department would target, and the council president recently accepted the mayor's offer to have council members meet with police command staff on the problem.

* This month, Bell feared that an agreed-upon $500,000 upgrade the council's computer equipment would be reduced by bureaucratic maneuvering, and he went directly to the mayor with his concern. The full amount was secured.

* Last week, Bell dropped his plans to appoint former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke -- who unsuccessfully challenged Schmoke's bid for a third term in last year's Democratic primary -- to a new public authority to run after-school programs, after the mayor made it known that he had a problem with the appointment. Bell's new choice: former ** Councilman Carl Stokes, who ran against Bell last year in a four-way Democratic primary race for the council presidency.

This is a far cry from the contentiousness they displayed during the mayor's first two terms, when Bell regularly aligned himself with Clarke in City Hall's version of "Star Wars." Their relationship may have reached its low point in 1994, when Bell publicly likened Schmoke's failure to support a council bill to create an office to oversee privatization to Ronald Reagan's "union-busting."

During last year's Democratic primary, Bell backed Clarke for mayor while Schmoke supported 5th District Councilwoman Vera Hall for the council presidency.

The antagonism spilled over into the early days of their new terms. Bell exploded publicly over Schmoke's decision to appoint Hall as the mayoral legislative liaison. In February, the council president made an abortive attempt to torpedo the reconfirmation of Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.

Not long afterward, Bell and Schmoke, brought together by 4th District Councilwoman Agnes B. Welch, who maintained good relations with both men, began holding a series of private meetings.

"We seemed to be fighting some of the old battles left over from the previous four years," recalls Schmoke. "I didn't think it would be productive to continue that way. Neither did he."

Their new resolve was tested during deliberations over the budget in May and June. To balance the budget, Schmoke wanted to raise taxes, while Bell wanted to speed a proposal by the mayor to encourage early retirements of veteran city workers. The result: a greatly accelerated retirement incentive program and a modest increase in levies on parking and video games.

That compromise paved the way for a surprisingly smooth summer.

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