Model mayor taking shape in Washington

December 27, 1998|By Paul Delaney

KURT Schmoke and Marion Barry have two unarguable things in common: They are mayors of major American cities and they are African Americans.

And yes, both will soon be ex-mayors, Mr. Schmoke electing to bow out next year rather than seek a fourth term; Mr. Barry, seeing the likelihood of defeat, left this year. Otherwise, ne'er the twain shall meet.

However, Washington's Mayor-elect Anthony Williams, who will be sworn in Saturday, may become a model for Baltimore's next mayor.

Tired and disgusted by Mr. Barry's years of shenanigans, Washingtonians wanted someone with the exact opposite . . . uh, traits. Mr. Williams is that someone.

Mr. Schmoke could never be accused of behaving poorly like Mr. Barry, but he should have let loose a little. And now, it seems that similar to Washington's voters, Baltimore residents want someone the opposite of the incumbent. In the wake of Mr.

Schmoke's announcement, some folks are calling for a more emotional leader, more of a cheerleader.

Mr. Williams appears to have a personality similar to Mr. Schmoke's: Their idea of partying is probably tame by most folks' standards.

Mr. Williams may indeed turn out to be the Kurt Schmoke of Washington -- a nice guy who's not ready for the hardball of big city politics. But, he may be exactly what the nation's capital needs at this moment, coming after not only Mr. Barry, but also the disappointing former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, who was booted after one term.

Unfortunately, it may take a nerd for the taxpayers to reclaim Washington and win the approval of the white Southerners in control of appropriations for the city, helping the district regain most of the rights confiscated by congress during the Barry years. Some shifting has already begun.

Mr. Williams was a numbers-cruncher whose trademark bow tie is like a birthmark. It's his signature, and that is OK. It's right for him, and who says you can't lead a revolution wearing a bow tie.

So far, he certainly has been impressive doing his pre-inaugural homework, both in quality and performance. He has held public forums, discussed restructuring city government and tackled issues of public concern, such as public safety, economic development and housing. He toured several cities -- Philadelphia, Detroit, Indianapolis and Portland, Ore. -- seeking ideas and advice on dealing with severe urban problems, the issues every big city mayor has to confront and address in some way.

One decision Mr. Williams has made is that radical change will be necessary within the first six months of his tenure. Most Washington residents -- and visitors -- are appalled by the potholes that seem never to disappear, the quality of city services and, perhaps worst of all, the quality of civil servants and their haughty attitudes toward the residents they were hired to serve.

Mr. Williams promises to immediately change those attitudes or change those people.

He would forge or force improvements by subjecting some services and contracts to competition between private companies and public agencies. In Indianapolis, he talked to the mayor, city workers and union leaders who had cooperated on such ideas to save the city money and improve services.

By the time Mr. Schmoke's successor takes office, Mr. Williams will have had a year to turn Washington around and make it work or he will have disappointed a lot of folks and sent morale and optimism nosediving, as well as the city's chance to redeem itself and get Congress off its back.

However it goes, Washington will provide lessons for Baltimore. Mr. Williams not only may become a role model for Baltimore's new mayor, but also he is likely to play a major part in the two cities' attempts to attract the 2012 Olympics to the area.

If Mr. Williams is in deep trouble this time next year, that effort will be, too. Two highly successful mayors would make a formidable team with great impact.

RTC The two personalities can be as different as night and day: Washington can have its bow-tied, nerdy accountant; Baltimore can opt for the opposite of Mr. Schmoke and elect a dandy dan, cigar-chomping man from the traditional or new-school politics, or a hang-tough, no-nonsense woman, none necessarily with Yale or Harvard pedigrees.

Either way, both mayors will have to contend with increasingly demanding residents who want and deserve better services, with a smile from those providing them.

Paul Delaney is a Baltimore writer.

Pub Date: 12/27/98

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