Plight of Schmoke and other ex-mayors

August 15, 1999|By Paul Delaney

THE PLIGHT of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- that he had no place to go but out -- is the unfortunate fate nowadays of minority mayors of big cities.

No matter the talent, measurable success at running a city -- that is, no bankruptcy, no state takeover of programs, no riots or scandals -- there usually is no chance for upward mobility to the governorship or United States Senate.

I consider the House of Representatives, ambassadorships or cabinet jobs -- but not the statehouse -- as lateral moves rather than promotion from city hall.

Nothing new

It is not a new phenomenon, affecting the Mayor Schmokes of the country. Blacks and other nonwhites have always found it difficult to put together the white votes necessary to win major office beyond city hall. And the prospects remain extremely bleak.

White voters have been reluctant to cast ballots for blacks seeking prize positions. The beginning of a new century finds no black governor in the 50 states and none in the Senate.

No black has ever won statewide in Maryland. Blacks have done so only in a handful of states, usually in lower offices such as comptroller, secretary of state and lieutenant governor.

An exception was L. Douglas Wilder, of Virginia, the only black governor elected this century. He was not a mayor.

Granted, white mayors do not have much of a shot, either, but their chances are far better than nonwhites.

Georgia does not elect Atlanta mayors, black or white, as governor; the same goes for Illinois voters and Chicago mayors as well as the Michigan electorate and Detroit mayors, to name only a few.

Governing a big city these days is more than a minor chore. Nobody really does it right, and few extremely talented people covet the job anymore. Not one of the two dozen candidates in Baltimore has fired up the electorate.

Kurt Schmoke did not live up to his billing when first elected. He was seen as lively though pensive, politically astute and promising although lacking the killer instinct. He did not live up to the fantasies of those looking for a Black Hope to resurrect the city.

No model mayor

Had Kurt Schmoke been the model mayor, solved many of the city serious problems he inherited and that were compounded over the years, he would have set a standard that would be a model for the nation.

Instead, as he heads to his high-powered law firm, he leaves a city limping along hoping and searching for solutions.

The tenure took a toll on him: notice the articles that inevitably observe how relaxed the mayor looks. He'll fare well in his new gig. The city? I don't know.

Paul Delaney is director of the Center for the Study of Race and Media at Howard University in the District of Columbia.

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