Disappointments define Schmoke administration

September 12, 1999|By Michael Olesker

SOON IT will be over. Kurt L. Schmoke is the long-suffering spouse whose separation from a difficult 12-year marriage to the city of Baltimore begins on Tuesday, to be followed by official divorce papers in the general election to follow. The mayor can hardly wait.

He goes through the motions these days. He knew the expectations that greeted him in the winter of '87, and he knows the disappointments that followed. In a time of grand national prosperity, he and his city feel a numbness in the soul, and a dread that the good times slipped irretrievably past us while other cities have learned to dance again.

Probably we expected too much of each other. The city looked at a resume and imagined a man. The man looked at the city and imagined possibilities. A heartfelt slogan to change a community's self-perception -- The City That Reads -- instead became a signpost for sorrowful mocking: city that bleeds, city that breeds, city that people leave.

A dozen years ago, the mayor's plan to change the approach to narcotics abuse looked brave and progressive, but never received a full hearing. The prisons have been a dumping ground for abusers who might be more intelligently handled with medical treatment.

The mayor went on national television one night early in his first term, on Ted Koppel's "Nightline," and tried to explain his new approach. He barely got words out of his mouth. A congressman from New York, Charles B. Rangel, with a voice like the brass section of a band, shouted him down, talked as if Schmoke wanted to litter the streets with junkies.

The mayor crumbled in a New York minute. He walked out of the television studio that night visibly rattled and barely raised his voice again. Now the mayoral candidates all give lip service to drug treatment, but the truth is more complex. No one quite knows a way out. In narcotics, as elsewhere, there is a sense of a dozen lost years.

The schools are still a mess. We imagined this mayor, with his glittering academic record, as a marvelous role model for the city's kids. But they come out of homes unlike his own. We want the schools to perform miracles of undoing all the ways children lead their lives outside of class, and this is a long shot beyond the reach of one person.

In the current race, the most vivid language about children comes from Carl Stokes. You don't hear it in the sound-bite TV debates, but in longer conversations he goes into areas that make most people nervous -- which a genuine leader must face.

"Community nurturing," he calls it. "We have thousands of kids who simply have no parents. They're there, but they're not parents. Or they're not there because they're working. But the kids have no social skills and no values. We have to give them values."

He talks about extending the school day and bringing in mentors to teach essentials the kids aren't getting at home. Not only values, but personal habits, how to eat properly, how to groom and clothe themselves.

The current mayor knows such problems exist, but also knows these are murky waters. So he stayed away. He's focused on traditional education, even when so many traditions are meaningless in the face of modern disarray.

He's been caught between values. He reads the horrendous crime figures, and he sees the 6 o'clock news where mothers weep over fallen children. But his sense of civil liberties inhibits him from endorsing tougher police measures.

Among the current candidates, Martin O'Malley and Lawrence Bell look lovingly at the changes in New York, with its famous zero-tolerance posture, and say it could work here. O'Malley has even produced a small book detailing the attack -- while carefully calling for tougher controls over the police themselves.

With his performer's instinct for drama, O'Malley invited the TV news people along one night as he ripped out public telephones used by drug dealers. Was he playing to the cameras? Of course, and what of it? We're a nation that digests politics in little bites now. We want symbols indicating somebody's on the job.

Kurt L. Schmoke never seemed to understand this. For all his hard work, and his long hours, and his good intentions, he failed to let anybody know about it. The genius of the mayor named Schaefer was making everybody part of the game. His city was broke, but if Schaefer put in a street lamp, he had cheerleaders waving pompoms.

This mayor got $100 million in federal Empowerment Zone money and never bothered to tell anybody where it was spent. Except that we now know $31,900 a year went to Daki Napata on his way to the Xerox machines.

We also imagined this mayor might be a race healer. Four years after a divisive campaign, he has remained mostly mute on race. This time around, two of the three leading candidates have talked passionately about healing old wounds. The third, Bell, mentions the old wounds when his troops aren't opening new ones.

In many ways, Tuesday's election is an exhausted, anxious response to the last, lost 12 years.

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