Schmoke's youth set impossible expectations Mayor accomplished much, but there was always more to be done

December 04, 1998|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

In retrospect, probably no one could have met the expectations Kurt L. Schmoke engendered by his own youthful accomplishments.

Star high school quarterback. Ivy League college and law school graduate. Rhodes scholar. White House aide. Assistant U.S. attorney. City state's attorney.

By the time Schmoke took office as Baltimore's 46th mayor in December 1987, he was expected to not only build on the progress of the Inner Harbor but also to rid the city's rapidly eroding neighborhoods of poverty and problems.

To the disappointment of many, Schmoke, who announced yesterday that he would not seek a fourth term, proved to be mortal and not a miracle-maker, leaving a mixed legacy of achievement and unfinished business.

He kept the city financially sound while neighboring cities were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, found the funds to demolish the hulking public housing high-rises that had for years warehoused the city's poorest citizens, and expanded development in the Inner Harbor.

But he could not reverse the steady exodus of middle-class residents; could not reduce the sky-high, drug-driven crime rate; could not get the chronically under-performing schools to perform.

"I think the mayor did an outstanding job," said U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and a classmate of Schmoke's at City College. "I think the expectations, many of them, were very difficult.

"He had a tall order to fill. He did the very best he could with what he had."

He set high goals

It wasn't that Schmoke didn't care -- or try -- to do more.

He vowed at his first inauguration to make education and literacy a priority of his administration, making Baltimore "the city that reads." He privatized nine city schools, but the experiment failed to improve test scores.

Two years ago, he agreed to give up his authority over the schools to a city-state partnership.

Under Schmoke's leadership, there have been impressive neighborhood redevelopment efforts in Sandtown-Winchester in West Baltimore and Pleasant View Gardens on the east side of the city.

Four years ago, Baltimore became one of six cities to secure $100 million in federal empowerment zone funds to revitalize some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

But the flight of middle-class residents -- the city's population has declined by nearly 100,000 since Schmoke took office -- undercut the city's tax base and led to a growing number of vacant and vandalized houses, creating blights on neighborhoods throughout the city.

Early in his tenure, Schmoke talked about treating drug abuse as a medical and not a criminal problem -- and took a decade of political flak for raising the issue.

Soft-spoken and cerebral, with a broad, signature smile, Schmoke at times seemed to have difficulty managing -- and leading.

Slow to discharge people

He consolidated agencies and cut jobs to balance the budget of his shrinking city, but was slow to replace department heads who didn't do their jobs in such vital areas as police, housing and economic development.

His style of getting the opinion of lawyers and task forces before making a decision was in marked contrast to that of a popular and flamboyant predecessor, William Donald Schaefer, whose motto was "Do It Now" and in whose shadow Schmoke seemed destined to stand.

"His weakness was a lack of oomph," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Northwest Baltimore Democrat, who praised the mayor for his intellect and "likability."

"You have to be a cheerleader for the city. You have to be the one out there banging the drum. You can't be seemingly disengaged."

Hoffman is among those who sensed Schmoke's dwindling enthusiasm for his job: His announcement yesterday seemed to come as little surprise to those who know him or follow city politics.

"It was just a question of when," said Lenneal J. Henderson, a political science professor at the University of Baltimore.

He speculated that Schmoke may have been strongly inclined against running last spring when he endorsed Harford County Democrat Eileen M. Rehrmann against Gov. Parris N. Glendening in the Democratic primary.

Indeed, five years ago, Schmoke explored running for governor, but he opted to seek a third term. During his first campaign for mayor, he told an interviewer that he planned to serve only two terms.

The week before Thanksgiving, Schmoke held long talks with friends and associates about the possibility of not running again.

Former Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, a mayoral aide whose relationship with Schmoke goes back to their City College days, said Schmoke felt that not running again was the right decision for him and "for the city."

"I think he believes we need a new discussion, a new vision of things," Cunningham said. "If he ran again, we wouldn't have that."

Pub Date: 12/04/98

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