An Idea Whose Time Won't Come

April 27, 1997|By Barry Rascovar

SENATOR SCHMOKE? The title has a dream-like quality -- for good reason. It's wishful thinking on the part of Baltimore's mayor and his political strategist, Larry Gibson.

Yet Kurt Schmoke and Mr. Gibson are marching ahead with parallel campaign funds for mayor (1999) and senator (2000). Mr. Schmoke is supposed to win a fourth mayoral term, then plunge into a Senate campaign after incumbent Paul Sarbanes declines to run for a fifth six-year term.

It is a waste of time and money. Mr. Schmoke's elective career has been dead-ended by his performance as Baltimore mayor.

Other factors contribute heavily to his inability to gain higher office: Demographic changes that shift voting power from liberal, minority-dominated jurisdictions to more conservative (and white) suburban and exurban counties; the city's growing isolation, and the memory of the turbulence created the last time a mayor (William Donald Schaefer) was elected to statewide office.

In 1994, Mayor Schmoke toyed with running for governor. He gave it up after it became clear that such a campaign would unleash pent-up anger and frustration across Maryland over what has happened to Baltimore.

A Senate campaign would be no different. All the city's woes during Mr. Schmoke's tenure would be highlighted. Even if he wins in a crowded Democratic Senate primary, it sets up a debacle in the general election. The most likely Republican would be Rep. Robert. L. Ehrlich, a popular Baltimore County politician who is an aggressive campaigner with plenty of guile. Mr. Schmoke would be a perfect foil.

Look around the country: Mayors of aging cities aren't elected to higher office. Especially black mayors. And especially mayors from cities that are deeply troubled. For better or worse, a mayor get blamed for his town's ills.

Take the current crisis in the Baltimore police department. It is a no-win situation for Mr. Schmoke. Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier erred by suspending his top uniformed supervisor for insubordination; he should have handled it quietly and with tact. But the mayor can ill afford to fire or force out or overrule a police chief he recently called the best in the U.S. That would play into the hands of his political enemies -- especially City Council President Lawrence Bell -- and into the hands of malcontents and union leaders in the police department who want to seize control.

A lose-lose proposition

Regardless of the mayor's response, he loses. The turmoil and public furor of this episode will linger. It reinforces public perceptions that Baltimore is a mess, and matters are getting worse.

How does Candidate Schmoke explain this in a Senate campaign? How does he explain housing controversies stirred up by Daniel Henson, his close adviser? How does Candidate Schmoke explain that "the city that reads" still has inferior schools and a shell of a once-great library system?

What campaign slogan would Mr. Gibson choose: "He'll do for the Senate what he did for Baltimore?" More likely, opponents will say such things.

Then there is Mr. Schmoke's advocacy of legalized drugs, or at least medicalization of the problem. That is an easy target.

And the mayor will be unable to defend against accusations he is a "tax and spend liberal." He would be easy pickings for a hard-hitting moderate conservative.

Even the notion that Mr. Schmoke would win a Democratic primary rings hollow. Wayne Curry, the Prince George's County Executive, appears far more viable, as does Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan. Ditto Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger. And don't forget possible challenges from Rep. Steny Hoyer or Rep. Ben Cardin or Gov. Parris Glendening -- if he wins a second term next year. The mayor could get a heavy city vote, but against some or all of these foes that won't be nearly enough. The city's shrinking population works strongly against him.

More likely is a federal job in a Democratic administration, or a federal judgeship. Or perhaps Mr. Schmoke will serve out this and the next terms at City Hall, then opt for a prestigious local law firm.

But a seat in the U.S. Senate? Messrs. Gibson and Schmoke had better try another dream.

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

Pub Date: 4/27/97

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