Next mayor may be former one

December 20, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

WHO's going to be Baltimore's next mayor? That question will hover over the city's political scene for the next nine months.

City Council President Lawrence Bell? City Comptroller Joan Pratt? State Sen. Joan Carter Conway?

Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings? Councilwoman Helen Holton? Register of Wills Mary Conaway?

School board member Carl Stokes? State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy? State Corrections Secretary Stuart Simms?

How about this one: William Donald Schaefer.

Yes, the man elected mayor four times in the 1970s and 1980s, two times as governor and as state comptroller last month. By spring, conditions could be ideal for a Schaefer-for-mayor announcement.

Of all the prospective candidates, Mr. Schaefer is the only one with charisma and wide citizen appeal.

He is the only one who can offer voters a proven record as a tough manager of an urban city.

And he has an excellent reputation: Esquire magazine once called him the best mayor in America.

There is broad agreement that Mr. Schaefer directed a rejuvenation of Baltimore that went into eclipse after he left for Annapolis in 1987.

Running B'more

Twelve years later, at the age of 78, Mr. Schaefer may once again ascend to the position that gave him his happiest moments: running his beloved hometown.

While it's not unheard of for a white politician to be elected mayor in a majority-black city, it's still unusual.

In a crowded field of Democrats (forget about Baltimore's puny Republican minority), Mr. Schaefer could be the lone white face of any major significance. It would only take 20 or 25 percent of the vote to win.

Mr. Schaefer could claim solid support from white Baltimoreans, and draw black backing from all over the city because of his decades of service to community groups and leaders. He's the only candidate capable of making that assertion.

The others will have narrower political bases -- for instance, Mr. Bell in West Baltimore, Ms. Pratt among several large black churches, state Sen. Conway in Northeast Baltimore, Mr. Rawlings in his West Baltimore district. Unless one candidate emerges as the clear front-runner, it could be Mr. Schaefer's election for the asking.

Certainly Mr. Schaefer would bring excitement and entertainment. He is a showman. But more than that, he is an emotional politician who does not hide his deep and sincere affection for Baltimore.

Since he left the mayor's office, Mr. Schaefer has been privately distressed at his city's sad, slow decline. It tears at him, especially since he's been unable to do anything about it.

What the city lacked in recent years was a tough, strong manager who could knock heads together to make things happen -- or in the Schaefer vernacular: "Do it now."

'Do it now'

The city is devoid of a vocal cheerleader and promoter capable of luring new companies to town and keeping old ones from leaving -- something Mr. Schaefer does well.

The city has been hurt by the private sector's alienation from City Hall, a debilitating situation that would not have happened in the Schaefer years.

And the city has suffered from a failure by Baltimore's mayor to build solid bridges of cooperation and joint ventures with surrounding suburban politicians -- another area where Mr. Schaefer shines.

Is the possibility of a second Schaefer era in Baltimore wishful thinking on the part of his supporters? Perhaps.

The prospect of a white politician winning the mayor's seat could prompt black politicians to join forces to stop that from happening -- if they can submerge their considerable egos long enough to agree on one mayoral candidate.

Or Mr. Schaefer may not have the stomach to enter a potentially brutal primary with possible racial overtones.

Still, by spring, the new state comptroller may have realized the limits of his job. He won't have much power to alter the course of events in Annapolis. It could prove frustrating for a man used to getting results.

Mr. Schaefer knows full well that Baltimore needs help. It sorely could use a visionary leader capable of taking charge and demanding action. This would be Mr. Schaefer's greatest challenge -- if he's up to it.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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