Power and the city schools bill Letter: Most Baltimore lawmakers were unmoved by the politically charged missive that blindsided the schools deal last week.

The Political Game

April 08, 1997|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

LATE LAST WEEK down here in the Fantasyland of Annapolis, the $254 million Baltimore City schools deal got blindsided by a letter decrying it as "completely unacceptable" and "racist paternalism."

It was signed by Kweisi Mfume, the generally reasonable and politically savvy head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a handful of city ministers, media figures and others.

The letter was sent to members of the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates, and needless to say, it circulated quickly around the State House campus.

Non-Baltimore state leaders and members of both houses couldn't figure it, though.

For a few hours, it gave rural legislators -- who were shaky on the deal anyway, but who ultimately made the difference in passing it -- a reason to vote against it. After all, if Baltimore community leaders didn't support a package that gave the city schools the $254 million in state aid over five years, why should they?

What was not immediately obvious to them, but was crystal clear to unfazed city legislators, was that the letter could be explained simply.

At work was the wonder of local city politics -- and Baltimore lawmakers met the missive with a near-collective yawn.

It was apparent to them that certain of the city's elected officials were capitalizing on the idea that the city was giving up too much power for too little.

Among them, Baltimore City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, the man who would be mayor in 1999, and Del. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a first-term legislator from the Westside -- both of whom were playing politics and the highly charged race card.

Which is not to say that some of the points suggested in the letter -- such as the autonomy and procurement issues -- were not valid concerns in the city's black community.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke himself grappled with giving up his near-exclusive power over the school system -- a unique characteristic of city government -- in exchange for the money.

Schmoke initially balked at the notion, and through last summer and fall fanned the flames of rhetoric himself, drawing in the city's black ministers.

What was particularly difficult for many to accept was the idea of the school system failing so miserably on the watch of the city's first black elected mayor. As difficult was his agreeing to share his power with the white governor, the white state schools superintendent and the predominantly white State Board of Education.

Ultimately, Schmoke decided that it was the best deal he could )) strike for the city's schoolchildren and last fall he signed a consent decree that settled three lawsuits over conditions in the Baltimore schools. The legislation was an outgrowth of that consent decree.

He has been paying the price ever since, both personally and politically, at home and in Annapolis.

And last week, the kind of pressure he is under became obvious to the noncity members of the General Assembly, a group generally not sympathetic to Schmoke on the issue of the condition of city schools.

But what was not so clear was that the underlying motivation was political.

Bell, who is Mfume's cousin, is looking to run for mayor next time and has fired salvo after salvo at Schmoke for agreeing to the deal.

For his part, Mitchell has used the education soapbox to define himself as a legislator -- and to position himself for higher office, including the 44th District Senate seat his family considers theirs.

He tried repeatedly -- and unsuccessfully -- to amend the leadership's schools bill on the floor of the House and ultimately voted against it.

Publicly mute on the subject of the letter is the 44th's current inhabitant, Sen. Larry Young, who took a walk on the first vote on the schools measure -- and then voted against it yesterday.

Young supposedly was miffed that he did not get two picks on the new nine-member school board and that he was unable to amend the bill to require that board nominees be confirmed by the Executive Nominations Committee, which he chairs.

But politically, he also cannot allow Mitchell to upstage him with his objections to the legislation.

Young declined to comment on whether he had anything to do with the letter, but many see his fingerprints on it because he is so close to many of the signatories -- including his pastor, the publishers of two newspapers where his columns appear and the owner of radio stations on which he has a talk show.

Young surely is looking over his shoulder at his young protege and the next would-be senator, Mitchell, who is the son and nephew of former senators from the district, and the great-nephew of former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, who also signed the letter.

Before yesterday's final vote on the measure, Young railed against the bill, declaring it a blow to the "empowerment of our community," as Bell sat nearby, looking on from the Senate floor.

But Senate Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount, the highly respected West Baltimore Democrat, rose to give an impassioned rebuttal.

"This bill is not all about education; I wish that it were," Blount said at one point. "This bill has tones of 1998 and 1999. I hope you know what I'm talking about."

We do, senator.

Pub Date: 4/08/97

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