Putting a spin on his future As the Schmoke administration winds down, press secretary Clint Coleman, a three-term member of the team, will have to find a new job.

CATCHING UP WITH... CLINT COLEMAN

December 27, 1998|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Outside the room where Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is telling shocked City Council members that he will quit next year, his press secretary, Clint Coleman, bumps into Lawrence A. Bell III, the council's president. The two men, at times political adversaries, at times friendly, look at each other, silently. It's been a tense day, full of surprises, and observers aren't sure what's going to happen between Coleman and Bell, the odds-on favorite to inherit Schmoke's job.

Coleman is first to shatter the moment.

"Pleeeeeeze let me stay!" he says in a shrill mock plea to Bell, dropping his head below his shoulders.

Both he and Bell then explode into laughter as the two grip hands and slip into breezy small talk.

Though he laughed about it then, the reality of what Schmoke's Dec. 3. decision means for him should be starting to hit home for Clint Coleman. The ironclad job he's had as the mayor's official mouthpiece is coming to an end. By this time next year, he could be out of a job. Out of a job and 48 years old. Out of a job, 48, and with a daughter in college and a son about to head there too.

He swears that it hasn't hit him yet. If that's so, he's the only one who doesn't see that it has.

His wife, Joyce, thinks he's acting a little weird these days. Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo says that he's looking a little down. Friends call to ask if he's OK.

It's not as if anyone is looking for his obituary in the newspaper, but a sense of death is hanging over Coleman's head. It's the death of the Schmoke era. And Coleman is being hit particularly hard, because he will no longer be working for a man he admires and believes in.

Coleman has been with Schmoke almost from day one in City Hall. One of the administration's first appointees, he is one of only three first-termers still on the job.

It's rare that a press secretary lasts as long as Coleman. Most are either burned out by the pace, fed up with the constant spinning of the truth or bloodied and bruised, figuratively speaking, by nagging reporters. But Coleman's style has been to stay mostly in the background and let Schmoke shine.

His most memorable moments aren't the times when he was able to get a point across to the media or push the merits of a particular government program. Instead, they are more personal, like the time in 1989 when he was talking to Schmoke and the mayor began to rub his chest, complaining about chest pains so severe that he was forced to go to the hospital. It scared "the be-jeezus out of me," Coleman says. He thought his friend was having a heart attack.

Schmoke says he most remembers the personal moments between himself and Coleman too.

"I remember us going to dinner in Little Italy [with] some of my favorite critics [when it was] suggested we sit and break bread," recalls Schmoke. "He never took himself too seriously. I've watched him emerge and grow. He has been a good friend and a good press secretary."

Now that it is time to move on, prospects for the future are on Coleman's mind.

"I'm still waiting for my phone to ring," he says, chuckling.

"Clint's a good guy," says his buddy Sam Ringold, former spokesman for the city's police department. "He may have overstayed his tenure by one term, but I don't worry at all that Clint won't land on his feet."

Everybody calls Coleman a good guy, including former Schmoke rivals and the reporters that he is charged with keeping at bay.

"He was real people, and he was down to earth," says Michael Fletcher, a former Sun government reporter who now covers race relations for the Washington Post.

Even Mary Pat Clarke, the former City Council president who failed in 1995 to unseat Schmoke as mayor, calls Coleman a good guy. The two have had a stormy relationship and would never be mistaken for pals.

Coleman likes to tell a story from the heated days of the 1995 election, when Schmoke and Clarke were battling it out. He says Clarke told him that "when she became mayor," he would be one of the first to go.

Clarke laughs it off. "I don't remember saying that," says Clarke. "I don't deny it. But I certainly wish Clint all the best."

That doesn't mean that people are crowning Coleman the best press secretary they've ever seen. Local reporters complain that he has trouble returning phone calls.

A newspaper story from Coleman's first year as Schmoke's press secretary quotes a couple of reporters complaining about unreturned calls. "You can leave phone messages all day and he won't answer them," said one.

Coleman looks at the rumpled newspaper clipping, which includes his photograph.

The picture of the guy in that 1988 article is a bit thinner, the hair darker and fuller. But the smile is unmistakably Clint Coleman, big as last year's city budget gap.

"That was a long time ago," he says.

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