`Serious reservations about me'

The Schmoke Legacy

November 23, 1999

This is the concluding edited excerpt of interviews with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. In his usually candid and thoughtful way, Mr. Schmoke lists his proudest accomplishments, his disappointments and offers guidance to his successor, Mayor-elect Martin O'Malley. The interviews were conducted by Sun editorial writer C. Fraser Smith.

Sun: What was the psychology of the city when you came in?

Schmoke: Hard to generalize. In some quarters people were looking ahead with great expectations. But in others there was great skepticism. My core constituency, African-Americans and white liberals up Charles and to the west, was optimistic. There were differences in expectations between what people said publicly and what they were saying privately. Mayor (William Donald) Schaefer was saying, "This is a guy you have to be suspicious of." We had four or five years of his not feeling good about me when I was state's attorney -- and he hated Larry (Gibson, Schmoke's political adviser). He said I was anti-business and hostile to the Inner Harbor. Some business guys bought it. There were serious reservations about me. One leading businessman was under the impression I had only hired black lawyers in the state's attorney's office. If an involved business man thought that, it made me wonder if others in the business community shared that view. So I don't think I would say that beyond my core constituency there were great expectations for the first elected African-American mayor. In any change of administration there will be high expectations and some hostility. I knew that would be the mix. I had spent time meeting with Dick Arrington, the mayor of Birmingham, Ala., and (Mayor) Harvey Gantt of Charlotte, N.C. They explained the likely range of reactions. I met with Marion Barry after the election. There are always mixed perception and expectations. Some things we've done have been successful at keeping the momentum going. But there are things we just didn't get accomplished. So people would be disappointed in my performance in those areas. But I think I've addressed so many issues you'd have a range of scorecards. I'd say the good days outweighed the bad days. The city is in better shape than many of the older eastern cities to face the challenges of the next century. We've done a good job under difficult circumstances.

Sun: How much help did you get from your predecessors during your initial days in City Hall?

Schmoke: Schaefer never talked to me about transition. He told me one thing through (former Circuit Court judge) Edgar Silver: "Tell your friend that when there's heavy rain, debris floods the Inner Harbor." More of that sort of information would have been helpful. That's what I'm trying to do with Martin (O'Malley). We've met three times. I've had agencies do small books for him. He's talked to Danny (Henson, the housing chief) for three and a half hours. And (George) Balog (the public works chief) for three and a half hours. If he sees how things work, then he can make the big policy decisions.

Sun: You were careful not to criticize Schaefer. You needed state help -- so your fate was in his hands anyway, right?

Schmoke: That's why I never got in a verbal tit for tat with him. In my last year I've said some things about him that I don't feel very good about. It's one of those ironic things. Even though Schaefer and I couldn't seem to get along, he was a good governor for the city.

Sun: Your testy relationship with him helped him politically. He was worried about seeming to be the governor of Baltimore. But if he was fighting with you, how much could he be doing for the city?

Schmoke: You're absolutely correct. He never did anything for me because he wanted to. But if we had a better relationship -- one like he had with (former Gov. Marvin) Mandel -- I could have gone to (state schools Superintendent Nancy) Grasmick and the rest and said this doesn't have to be war. Maybe we could have done this partnership earlier and made more progress.

Sun: You took some very bold actions in the beginning of your tenure.

Schmoke: We did the health benefits for domestic partners and more gay rights protection. Also the living wage bill (requiring employers to pay hourly rates well above the federal minimum wage). We offered family leave before the federal government did it. All those things caused big controversy elsewhere. We did it in such a way that there were no big blow-ups. No strikes. No big demonstrations. Perception may be that after the first year we didn't do these bold things. I think we did. It's just that we did it in a style that didn't draw a lot of a attention to me. But we took on some tough issues. We did the clinics for adolescent, day-care centers in the schools.

Sun: You paid a big price for another daring thing you did -- calling for decriminalization of drugs.

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