Mayor has had enough after 11 years in office City Hall: Schmoke's decision not to seek reelection should trigger intense debate on Baltimore's future.

December 04, 1998

DECLARING "my sense is it's time for change," Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke confirmed yesterday he will not seek re-election to a fourth term next year.

The mayor's unequivocal statement is welcome. Months of speculation about his intentions are over, and the stage set for the first openly contested mayoral election since 1971. "There are some people who will be disappointed," the mayor noted. "Others will say, 'Hallelujah'."

This disarmingly realistic assessment was vintage Kurt Schmoke. He has always been a man who, unlike many other elected officials, has not enjoyed playing games or been concerned about maximizing the advantage of timing.

His unconventional political behavior often has made Mr. Schmoke an exasperating mayor. Yesterday was a case in point. The mayor would have been in a stronger position to lobby for the city in Annapolis had he waited to make his announcement after the General Assembly session. Instead, he said, "My gut tells this is the right time."

With one more year to go, it is premature to judge Mr. Schmoke's legacy. Several initiatives that may affect that assessment are still in their formative stages, above all the effort to revive the Howard Street corridor.

But it is telling that the fundamental complaints about his administration have not changed in 11 years: Inaccessibility and poor communication, particularly with the business community; inadequate follow-through on decisions, aimlessness in administration and service delivery. All this is crystallized in the HTC fact that where other executives would have had at least one major staff overhaul in three terms, Mr. Schmoke's cabinet has stayed essentially unchanged.

The mayor can point to some glitzy Inner Harbor projects and claim credit. He also won federal funding for a massive program to replace antiquated, crime-ridden public housing high-rises with spacious rowhouse communities. But Baltimore's overall condition is bleak. The exodus of taxpayers and businesses continues unabated, leaving behind a city of perhaps 625,000 residents that has a costly infrastructure built to serve a population of nearly one million.

This is a politically difficult dilemma the next mayor must address with greater resolve than Mr. Schmoke. It was disappointing yesterday to hear the mayor first proclaim that "I am a lame duck but not a dead duck" and then talk about how he will lower his profile from now on. For example, Mr. Schmoke said he will not fight the incumbents who oppose his proposal to reduce the number of City Council members from 18 to 11.

The mayor cited a feeble excuse for his inaction: City Council incumbents want to wait for the results of the 2000 Census before doing anything, as if those figures -- which Baltimore has challenged as undercounts in the past -- will resolve anything.

Mr. Schmoke would do citizens a great service if he used the remainder of his term to facilitate changes he believes are required in the city. This -- and not compliant silence -- would be a proper use of the authority of his position, expertise and personal popularity.

The next mayor inherits a city where a thin veneer of glitter hides a serious crisis. During his 11 years, Mr. Schmoke has steered the city through good economic times as well as a recession. Early on he talked about "reinventing government," but never seriously tried to do it. He apparently did not have the heart to make the difficult decisions.

Symptomatically, the last buyout for municipal workers, which was touted as a cost saver, was a failure. Most of the departing veterans were quickly replaced with new hires.

Mr. Schmoke's successor will have the tough and unenviable task of finally facing up to the realities of a shrunken city. That's why the forthcoming mayoral campaign should be conducted as a full-blown debate about Baltimore's options.

Schmoke as mayor

1987: Becomes first elected African-American mayor of Baltimore, defeating Mayor Clarence H. "Du" Burns.

1988: Urges decriminalization of certain drugs.

1990: Keeps Baltimore solvent by eliminating nearly 3,400 city jobs.

1992: Hires private company to handle nine troubled city schools. Effort fails.

1994: Lands $100 million federal Empowerment Zone to lure jobs, businesses.

1997: Signs city schools over to state in exchange for $254 million in aid after the acting city schools chief dubbed them "academically bankrupt."

Pub date 12/4/98:

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