His grade is C+ after 12 years

Mixed results: Sound fiscal practices, Inner Harbor boom counter quality-of-life, staff weaknesses during his tenure.

The Schmoke Legacy

November 22, 1999

IF A GRADE were given for Kurt L. Schmoke's 12-year tenure as mayor, it would be a C+.

Mr. Schmoke can take pride in several real achievements:

He razed crime-ridden public housing high-rises that surrounded the central business district. New mixed-income communities of homeowners and renters will eventually replace them. Similar new townhouse communities will sprout at demolition sites in the nation's other big cities. But federal officials cite Baltimore, along with Atlanta, as having done the best job.

Minority participation became institutionalized, giving African-American contractors, architects and engineers unprecedented access to city business. This breakthrough was particularly important because minority procurement is not often encouraged in the private sector.

While mismanagement and recession drove Philadelphia into bankruptcy, Mr. Schmoke kept Baltimore's finances sound and its all-important bond rate intact without drastic cuts in public services. He managed this feat, even though he had to write off some $50 million in defaulted loans to a private bank created by William Donald Schaefer. It would have been easy for Mr. Schmoke to make a political issue of this and blame his predecessor; he never chose to do so.

The Inner Harbor continued to thrive on his watch. Successful new attractions, such as the Power Plant retail and entertainment complex, were opened at locations where previous mayors' revitalization efforts failed.

The Schmoke administration, though, was unable to stop physical deterioration in areas beyond the Inner Harbor.

Sandtown-Winchester is a case in point.

More than $70 million in public and private investment has been spent there over the past nine years. Yet a partnership among City Hall, nonprofit organizations and the private sector has failed to regenerate the forsaken West Baltimore neighborhood. Hundreds of housing units have been completed and more are being built. Health and social services have been stepped up and efforts have been made to improve schools. Still, relentless decay erodes surrounding residential areas, leading to further abandonment.

Mr. Schmoke cared about a neighborhood that nobody else cared about, in the assessment of a Sandtown activist, who was asked for a silver lining.

Overall, the Schmoke administration proved incapable of revising many sagging quality-of- life indices:

Schools, which had been neglected under previous mayors, became so unmanageable that the state stepped in to reform them.

A crack epidemic hit Baltimore with a ferocity that has left one out of every eight adults is addicted to drugs. Violence associated with drug trafficking spilled into neighborhoods. Since 1990, not a single year has ended with fewer than 300 homicides.

A residential renaissance started in Canton and continued in Fells Point and Federal Hill. But other neighborhoods deteriorated as flight to the suburbs created 40,000 vacant houses. When the middle-class fled, so did corporations and jobs.

Baltimore's designation as one of the nation's six empowerment cities was just one example of how Mayor Schmoke benefited from his personal friendship with President Clinton. Five years later, the program has a mixed record of success and has produced no economic breakthrough for target communities.

Contradictions in record

The Schmoke administration's overall record is full of contradictions. Just like the mayor himself.

In his first inaugural address, the new mayor promised an energetic, aggressive administration, one that wouldn't be anchored behind its desk, that wouldn't wring its hands but roll up its sleeves.

One of his predecessors, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, had urged him to recognize that the word "mayor" is a verb. By this he meant a mayor must be out and about putting his face on every city project -- showing concern for every neighborhood, for every block with a vacant, "nuisance" house, for every bullet-wounded child. Mr. Schmoke did all of these things, but his image as a man of abstract --- hands-off -- leadership was imprinted on the public consciousness.

Instead of dynamism, his management was reactive, haphazard and slow-moving. Far too often, it lacked coordination or purpose. Since the mayor himself is not an assertive person, meetings were held and strategies discussed, but notes were seldom taken, assignments seldom made or follow-through secured. Participants would be puzzled and uncertain about what, if anything, had been decided.

This became a persistent problem throughout the three terms. It was particularly pronounced in the first six years, when the administration was slowed down by a disastrously weak housing commissioner (Robert W. Hearn), an insubordinate school superintendent (Richard C. Hunter), a caretaker police commissioner (Edward V. Woods) and a miscast economic development chief (Honora Freeman).

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