January 14, 2003

CLARENCE HENRY Burns was a sweet guy who emerged from an era when politicians knew what it took to run a city. "I could put coal and wood in people's basements, I could get them food," he once said. He also could get them jobs, and they gave him their votes in return.

Mr. Burns, who died Sunday at the age of 84, was a machine politician from the days when politics in Baltimore could be said to run like a machine. Years after he was swept aside by young, bright, well-educated, policy-oriented Kurt L. Schmoke, people were still calling Du Burns, hoping he could get the potholes on their streets filled in.

Imagine. Here was a former Dunbar High locker-room attendant - and how long has it been since a public school in Baltimore had a locker-room attendant? - who worked the precincts of East Baltimore for 40 years. In the City Council, where he served from 1971 to 1987, he was the man with the cackly voice and the always elegant clothes who made possible what the irascible Mayor William Donald Schaefer wanted.

And that was why, in 1987, when he ascended to become the city's first black mayor, Mr. Burns knew a thing or two about how to make things work. He knew how to run an organization; he knew how to look after people.

Du Burns seemed like a throwback. He would reminisce about playing the saxophone, and he liked to hang out at the Palmer House on Eutaw Street, when he wasn't at Connolly's Seafood House on Pier 5, which he once charitably described as "clumsy-looking." There were forward-looking people back in 1987 who didn't think he was up to the job - which was laughable considering the unraveling of city services and city morale that proceeded under Mr. Schmoke's guiding hand.

No. Du Burns was always being underestimated. He was so effortlessly effective that people didn't realize what they'd be missing when he was gone.

He tried a comeback against Mr. Schmoke in 1991, stumping from door to door because he didn't have the money for a television campaign. He lost badly. That was it. "I look at today, I feel that I don't belong in the field of politics as it is," he said.

It's not hard to see his point. But it was politics that went wrong, not Du Burns.

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