Schmoke calls this 'the right time' Mayor says officially he won't seek 4th term

December 04, 1998|By Ivan Penn and Gerard Shields | Ivan Penn and Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Karen Hosler and William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

Promising an aggressive finish to his three terms as Baltimore's 46th mayor, an upbeat and visibly relieved Kurt L. Schmoke announced his impending departure yesterday from the job he has held for more than a decade.

In explaining the stunning decision not to pursue a fourth term, the popular, cerebral mayor said he had talked with his family and friends during the Thanksgiving holiday, and decided that a new leader should carry the city into the next century and millennium.

"Right now, my gut tells me it's the right time," Schmoke said, sitting next to a longtime friend and supporter, City Council Vice President Agnes B. Welch, during a City Hall news conference.

"We certainly look forward to working hard the next 12 months. I am a lame duck but not a dead duck."

Schmoke said he did not plan to seek any other political office -- elected or appointed -- except perhaps a seat in the U.S. Senate.

After his mayoral term ends Dec. 7, 1999, Schmoke said, he plans to pursue jobs in the private sector, which might include working for a nonprofit organization, becoming a lobbyist on Capitol Hill or returning to the practice of law.

Even as potential candidates line up -- most notably NAACP President Kweisi Mfume -- Schmoke described the 1999 election as historic, calling it "a referendum on the future."

Political analysts say the mayor's job is one of the most coveted in Maryland politics because the city's form of government gives the mayor wide-ranging powers.

"The mayor is so powerful a figure in Baltimore that if you're decent, you can really establish a personal stamp on the city," said Herbert C. Smith, a Western Maryland College political science professor.

Based on assessments from many city employees yesterday, Schmoke clearly has left an impression. Waves of ovations for his service greeted the mayor as he announced his departure to his staff and other city workers in meetings early yesterday.

Schmoke had told some city and state officials of his decision Wednesday, but many still took yesterday's announcement as a bittersweet pill.

"We were happy for him," said George G. Balog, director of the Department of Public Works. "But I think everybody knew that an era was ending."

Cause for tears

Schmoke staff member Kevin S. O'Keeffe choked back tears. The city lobbyist in Annapolis pulled out a letter he had written to Schmoke 16 years ago.

O'Keeffe was an 18-year-old Loyola High School student who had volunteered to serve on Schmoke's first political campaign, for Baltimore state's attorney.

Since then, O'Keeffe has remained with the mayor while working his way through Georgetown Law School. Earlier in the week, O'Keeffe presented a scrapbook to Schmoke depicting the mayor's years of public service.

"He was a role model for many of us here," O'Keeffe said, wiping away the tears. "You couldn't work for a nicer man."

Schmoke, who turned 49 this week, was one of the nation's first African-American politicians elected outside the civil rights struggle.

A Yale graduate, who went on to be a Rhodes scholar at London's Oxford University and to earn a law degree from Harvard, Schmoke was billed as the new breed of mayor.

Many saw him, a former assistant U.S. attorney and city state's attorney, becoming a vice presidential or even presidential candidate.

The White House said Wednesday that officials there would like to talk with Schmoke about a position with the Clinton-Gore administration, if he was interested.

Fallout from 1988 remarks

But the mayor downplayed that option yesterday, saying he thought he would be a liability to the president because he announced his support in 1988 for the "decriminalization of drugs."

Schmoke said he thought his position on drugs would make it impossible to win confirmation for an appointed position.

In a prepared statement yesterday, President Clinton praised Schmoke for his work but never mentioned appointing the mayor to a post in his administration.

"Since becoming president in 1993, it has been my good fortune to work very closely with Mayor Kurt Schmoke on issues about which the residents of Baltimore and our nation care," Clinton said in the statement.

"He has been a wonderful partner in our efforts to improve the quality of education for all children, increase the availability of health care and housing, enhance economic development in our inner cities and revitalize our neighborhoods," he said.

"I am grateful to the mayor for his public service to Baltimore and our nation, and I look forward to making the most use of every day remaining in his current term of office to continue our work together."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, whose strained relationship with the mayor stopped him from commenting Wednesday night on Schmoke's planned departure, broke his silence yesterday.

"I wish him well," Glendening said in a prepared statement. "I can certainly understand how demanding public service can be, and I hope that in the future he will be able to spend more time with his family.

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