Schmoke walks fine line in backing Dean

Former mayor is careful to avoid any appearance as adviser on drug policy

December 22, 2003|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When Howard Dean told Kurt L. Schmoke that he planned to run for president, the former Baltimore mayor offered to help his friend and Yale classmate.

Schmoke knew he could help advise Dean on urban policy. He knew he could help the former Vermont governor reach out to African-Americans. But Schmoke, now dean of the Howard University Law School, also feared he could hurt Dean.

As someone who 15 years ago earned recognition - notoriety, mostly - for his bold suggestion that illegal drugs be decriminalized, Schmoke has had to walk a fine line in supporting any national candidate.

"There are places that I go, and you say my name and it's immediately vilified," he said in a recent interview at his law school office.

Indeed, Schmoke, a former state's attorney for Baltimore and a three-term mayor, acknowledges that his maverick stance on drugs ensured that his political career halted at the local level.

So Schmoke told Dean and his staff in Vermont that he would do anything he could to help elect the doctor-turned-politician. "But I said, `Look, you've got to make it very clear I'm here as a friend and former mayor, and not as a policy adviser on this issue.'

"I wouldn't want to hurt his campaign in any way by any suggestion that he was embracing my more radical point of view - which I still believe is correct, but I won't make that any kind of litmus test for supporting a candidate," he says.

Schmoke, 54, has known Dean since 1967, when they both entered Yale and became friends through two of Dean's roommates. These days, Schmoke - who this past semester also taught courses on strategic leadership at the U.S. Army War College and Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. - is serving as one of many informal advisers and cheerleaders for the once little-known governor who has rocketed beyond most expectations to the front of the Democratic pack.

The former mayor traveled with Dean last summer on a campaign swing to Chicago and New York, and introduced him at a rally at the University of Maryland, College Park in September. Schmoke occasionally discusses public housing, transportation, education - nearly every aspect of urban life, with the deliberate exception of drug abuse - with Dean's policy team.

"We know what not to talk about," Schmoke says with his customary hearty laugh.

This fall, Schmoke helped defend Dean after an uproar over the candidate's remarks invoking the Confederate flag that offended some African-Americans and others.

Network of supporters

Schmoke says that although Dean has governed a state whose population is more than 97 percent white, the New Englander has tried to build a network of African-American supporters mainly through "word of mouth." That effort includes friends such as Schmoke and two of Dean's college roommates, Ralph Dawson and Don Roman, who were leaders of Yale's black student organization.

"Technology now is really helping," Schmoke says. "You get to 100 of your friends real fast, saying, `Just want to let you know I know this guy, and he's for real.'

"When he got to what I viewed as a bump in the road on the Confederate flag issue, it was helpful that he had friends of long standing who were African-Americans who believe in him, who think people are going to make mistakes along the way, but you don't give up on them because of one error. And the fact that we know where his heart is and his commitment."

At Yale, Schmoke became close friends with Dawson and Roman and got to know Dean as an acquaintance. In contrast with Schmoke and Dean, Dawson, now a lawyer in New York, and Roman, a financial consultant in Atlanta, were political activists on campus during that tumultuous time of anti-war and civil rights protests.

Schmoke was a class officer and self-described "independent operator" who focused on establishing a day care center (which still exists) for the children of mothers on Yale's custodial staff. Dean, recalls Schmoke, was more interested in policy, specifically health policy, than in politics or campus activism.

Through the years, Schmoke stayed in touch with Dean, mainly through mutual friends. After Dean became lieutenant governor of Vermont and Schmoke mayor of Baltimore in the late 1980s, the two often appeared together on panels at Yale reunions to discuss issues facing state and local governments.

Two years ago, the two men had a conversation about Dean's presidential ambitions at the Renaissance Weekend in Charleston, S.C., the annual New Year's gathering of VIPs that Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton made famous.

Schmoke says that while many people there were dismissive of an obscure governor's plans to seek the presidency, he was not. "I thought it was a doable proposition," Schmoke says.

Schmoke says he saw in Dean the same sort of desire, intensity and confidence he had seen in another little-known governor who defied the odds to reach the White House - Jimmy Carter. So Schmoke offered his services.

Opposing views

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