Schmoke: 11 years later, still learning on the job Mayor: He continues to seek new ways to beat back the problems Baltimore shares with the rest of the nation's aging industrial cities.

November 22, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Scott Shane and Mike Ollove contributed to this article.

Meeting with Baltimore high school students earlier this year, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke summed up his 11-year mayoral tenure in one word: Nehemiah.

The Old Testament book tells of a hero who returns to find his hometown in ruins. God calls upon Nehemiah to rebuild the city. A Harvard law professor introduced the tale to Schmoke.

"He told us that that was our mission," Schmoke recalled. "To be latter-day Nehemiahs."

When he was sworn into office more than a decade ago, political analysts billed Schmoke as the new breed of U.S. mayor. At 37, he became one of the first African-American politicians in the nation elected outside the civil rights struggle.

Many predicted that Schmoke would quickly ascend to governor, U.S. senator, Cabinet member or even vice presidential candidate.

The Rhodes scholar and former prosecutor hurdled Baltimore's long-standing racial voting barriers, culling support from white business leaders and black ministers while gaining the praise of voters such as Anna Mechau, 50.

The white South Baltimore factory worker and mother of 10 viewed the former state's attorney as the antidote to the city's woeful schools, violent crime, rising taxes, chronic unemployment and racial schism.

"I thought, here's a young, intelligent man who can do so much for this city," Mechau recalled.

With the state election over, the political spotlight in Baltimore turns to the 48-year-old Schmoke, who is expected to announce during the next six weeks whether he will seek his fourth four-year mayoral term in 1999. As happens every four years, the mayoral race prompts an assessment of Schmoke's impact on the city.

Clearly, voters like Schmoke. In 1995, he beat former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke with 60 percent of the vote, while recent polls taken during the governor's race showed the mayor with a favorable rating among 57 percent of city residents.

But in a recent interview, Schmoke acknowledges that he might not have become the city savior residents sought, however unrealistic the expectations. While Baltimore made unheralded strides in the past decade under Schmoke in removing decrepit public housing, improving health care for the poor, pushing Inner Harbor growth and keeping the city financially sound, it continues to suffer in the three areas critical to any city's reputation: schools, crime and taxes.

Middle-class families flee the city at a rate of 1,000 per month. Baltimore is expected to finish its ninth straight year with more than 300 murders, more than 2,700 dead since 1989.

And despite a doubling of education funding, Schmoke surrendered Baltimore schools to the state last year after the acting city schools chief dubbed them "academically bankrupt."

The open drug dealing, violent crime, vacant housing and wandering jobless frustrate residents such as the Rev. Melvin Tuggle, president of Clergy United for Renewal in East Baltimore, longtime Schmoke supporters.

"He didn't create many of these problems," Tuggle said of his mayor. "But he didn't solve them either.

Strides in public housing

Under Schmoke, Baltimore has rebuilt several poor neighborhoods, such as Sandtown-Winchester and Pleasant View Gardens. Recently gaining the federal money needed to tear down the last of its four high-rise public housing projects, the city will become the first in the nation to free a generation of mostly black residents from the crime-infested caged housing.

The effort has turned around the lives of people such as Cherrylle Elliott, 31, a former resident of the Lafayette Courts high-rise. After nine years in the projects, Elliott and her two children this year moved into a new red-brick townhouse in Pleasant View Gardens, down the street from the new employment center and boys and girls clubs.

"The whole thing is great," said Elliott, who serves on the community tenant council and neighborhood patrol. "You have a lot of things here you didn't have in the projects, and without Kurt Schmoke and President Clinton we wouldn't have gotten the comprehensive grant to have this."

Once ranked as a national leader in rates of AIDS, tuberculosis and venereal disease, Baltimore gained ground during the past five years because of programs such as needle exchanges and aggressive teen pregnancy counseling that Schmoke pushed.

During the past 10 years, the mayor has poured the largest amount of additional city money - close to a half-billion dollars - into education and health.

"Fixing up neighborhoods is not considered glamorous," said Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson. "But he has actually focused on areas of the city that were neglected for many years."

And while neighboring cities such as Philadelphia and Washington faced bankruptcy during the recession eight years ago, Schmoke kept Baltimore solvent as he cut city bureaucracy in half and eliminated nearly 3,400 city jobs.

Common city problems

The true measure of Baltimore's 46th mayor must be weighted against the deep sociological problems burdening American industrial cities.

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