Schmoke rolls the dice The mayor's endorsement of Eileen Rehrmann is a gamble that could haunt the city and help elect Ellen Sauerbrey.

Campaign 1998

May 03, 1998|By William F. Zorzi Jr.

Two summers ago, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke left the second floor of the State House believing he had sealed a deal with Gov. Parris N. Glendening to legalize slot machines at Maryland race tracks, with the state's share of the take going toward education.

When Schmoke's account of the private meeting trickled out days later, Glendening denied he had agreed to support slots.

Within weeks, Glendening - who had seen casino-style charity gambling mushroom in Prince George's County during his 12 years as executive there - climbed to new moral high ground. "No slots, no casinos, no exceptions" became his mantra.

Schmoke, whose strong and early support of Glendening in 1994 was vital to his election as governor, fumed at the suggestion he had lied about the deal and over his belief that a promise had been broken.

In many ways, that meeting and the resulting fallout became defining moments for this year's gubernatorial election.

It began a change of the state's political landscape with a shift in alliances and put legalized gambling at the center of a public policy debate.

Almost inevitably, it led to Schmoke's endorsement of another ,, candidate - Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann - two weeks ago.

"The endorsement certainly has changed the dynamics of the Democratic contest for governor," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, a Bethesda-based polling firm. "For the moment, it has raised interesting political questions about how this race is going to be run."

The endorsement, a dramatic though not completely unforeseen blow to the Glendening campaign, has political risks and benefits - both in the short and long term - for the lead characters:

* At least for now, Schmoke is being viewed by some as a turncoat, driven only by his desire to bring gambling to the city. He has been tagged an ingrate, having been the beneficiary, as Baltimore's executive, of the governor's largess the last three years.

Many of the mayor's chief political allies - state legislators, City Council members and neighborhood leaders - are working against Schmoke and Rehrmann. But it's early; the Sept. 15 Democratic primary is 4 months away.

Glendening, knowingly or not, had challenged the mayor's integrity by saying Schmoke "misunderstood" their slots meeting. And when a furious Schmoke erupted a month after the meeting and hinted that Glendening was not the only gubernatorial game in town for 1998, the governor dismissed the episode, saying, "It's a warm August, and tempers flare a bit."

It seems clear to those who know Schmoke that Glendening had to pay a price, that the Rehrmann endorsement is about something more than the gambling issue. The tone of the mayor's remarks has been pointedly personal. More of the same is expected.

There is little doubt that the endorsement - which gave the Rehrmann campaign a much-needed boost - is just the beginning of a strategy to attack Glendening's integrity, the governor's most vulnerable point.

Some say Schmoke's move puts an end to any statewide political plans he might harbor. Others maintain that by making an enemy of the governor, he puts at risk future state aid to the city - and even the mayor's re-election bid next year.

The ability of Schmoke and Larry S. Gibson, the mayor's politica godfather and Rehrmann's campaign manager, to turn out the vote this year will be closely watched - particularly by potential challengers to Schmoke.

"It really is a hell of a gamble," Rodney Orange, president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said after the endorsement.

But is it? What is the real risk to Schmoke?

"Is the governor going to take it out on the city? That's doubtful," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of policy analysis at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a longtime observer of local politics.

Glendening's campaign manager, Tim Phillips, said, "The governor's been really good to Baltimore City, has a lot of friends in Baltimore City and understands the importance of Baltimore City to the state of Maryland."

On the other hand, Phillips quipped, "I hope the mayor's not looking for choice seats at the second inaugural."

Whatever the outcome of the primary, Schmoke would seem to make out.

If Rehrmann wins, the mayor wins. If Glendening wins, the governor will still need Schmoke's help keeping the State House Democratic in what promises to be a hard-fought general election in November, likely against Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who narrowly lost the governor's race in 1994.

The real danger for Schmoke is that he would be blamed by rightfully angered Democrats if Glendening, a victor in the primary, were defeated by the Republican nominee after a bloody primary.

If that were the outcome, the city would be among the biggest losers because the next governor will oversee statewide redistricting after the 2000 Census.

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