Our hopes outstripped what mayor could deliver

December 06, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE FIRST day's reviews of Kurt L. Schmoke's impending exit made him sound like the great tragedy of our time. He's not.

His final grade will be a cross section of our own inflated anticipation of his possibilities, his city's hard-scrabble socio-economics, and Schmoke's own buttoned-up manner, more suited to a boardroom than a big city.

He's never been able to break through his own inhibited style. An old City Hall pal used to chastise him, after years in office: "When are you gonna start being mayor?" Others wanted to shake him and declare, "Mayor, put away the books for a while. There's a parade of humanity outside; get out in front of it."

Only now, as he announces he'll not run for a fourth term, does he admit the obvious: His title is a verb. A city's leader must show his face in the places where people live their anxious lives, must stroke the egos of business people fed up with high taxes and slovenly public services, must speak uncomfortable truths in public. The city's leader must "mayor."

It took this brightest of men a decade to crystallize this. For years, as the exodus to suburbia moved past City Hall, as trash spilled across city streets, as the murderous trail of spilled blood washed across gutters and parks and sidewalks, this nice young man seemed to be hunched down in his room, bent over books and charts, the perennial grad student cramming for some final exam yet to be announced.

Once, in his first term, he stood inside a funeral home on North Avenue. A city cop had been killed, a fellow who'd gone to City College a few years before Schmoke, who'd played for George (( Young's old football teams there, who'd followed a righteous path with his life.

A man speaking with open emotions would have declared: "This cannot go on in our city. In memory of a fallen brother, we have to clean up our streets, and examine our values, and talk to our children."

Speak such words into the gathered television cameras, show the folks at home that such action will not be tolerated, let them see a man in power who's genuinely moved to action.

Instead, the mayor muttered a few stiff words into a microphone. He seemed uncomfortable to be surrounded by so much weeping, so much unfiltered emotion. It's not that he didn't feel it himself; it's that he couldn't bring himself to show it. And you felt sorry for him, and for a city waiting for him to show us the best of himself.

Kurt L. Schmoke is the embodiment of the Good Son -- not only his parents', but his community's. He's the honorable fellow who went off to get himself a fine education and returned to do the right thing for his troubled city. But now, as he announces his plans to leave again, he takes with him our illusions.

He's a good man, but he's not the superman some mistakenly and unfairly anticipated. He's a hard-working man, but he never learned to show off his best work, to let us feed off the hopeful stuff happening in a variety of city neighborhoods, to convince those who would flee that the difficult business of living in a city is worth the effort, that there's joy in people of different backgrounds living side by side and learning from each other.

Instead, his last campaign for mayor divided us. Pressed about it, Schmoke seemed oblivious. Criticized for it, he waited until re-election to admit he would have to make changes. And then such talk went away.

But, as he enters his final year in office, there are good things happening: New money has finally seeped into town from the great American economic boom; waterfront development from Federal Hill to Canton is wonderful to behold; there are great plans for long-undernourished downtown streets. The next mayor will reap those benefits, but it's Schmoke who can take a few bows for it.

For a long time, such development couldn't happen because money was so tight. But there was also a sense that those surrounding the mayor never quite got it, never quite energized themselves.

When he first ran for mayor 11 years ago, Schmoke squeezed past Clarence Du Burns, who knew every inch of the city and knew how to bring contentious people together. But against the Schmoke resume, Burns seemed a faded throwback to a vanishing time.

Schmoke seemed to have promise draped about his shoulders. It wasn't just the academic background. We suspected he'd bring with him the best and the brightest minds, the convening of a municipal Camelot.

Instead, he brought in a succession of school officials who turned his "City That Reads" slogan into a painful and embarrassing punch line. He talked boldly of new approaches to drugs but backed off in a hail of criticism and now watches the narcotics traffic continue to fuel the endless crime and the ceaseless middle-class march to suburbia. And he brought in the housing chief Daniel P. Henson, who's spent so many ill-defined millions that federal officials have his department under a microscope.

On the day Schmoke announced he would not seek a fourth term, his sigh of relief could be felt across the city. He gave the job the best he knew how, the best his personality would allow.

But three terms is enough for anyone, even a Good Son.

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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