After 9 years away, one of council's legends runs again

October 22, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

MARY PAT Clarke emerges from the shadows of nine missing years. Once she was City Hall's great bundle of energy, a yelping watchdog voice. She was the City Council president who dreamed of becoming Baltimore's first female mayor. Now she is running for a North Baltimore council seat, hoping that her old constituents haven't forgotten her name.

She was a champion of neighborhoods and a voice of racial conciliation in an edgy era. She was a cheerleader for underdogs. When she spotted fraud and incompetence -- remember the housing department troubles a decade ago? -- she talked pretty fearlessly.

But she drifted from public view after a dispiriting mayoral campaign against Kurt L. Schmoke that depressed an entire city. Here were two liberal Democrats, products of the same great mid-century civil rights, let's-all-learn-to-live-together-in-racial-harmony crusade -- and their city chose up sides by skin color.

Clarke has been teaching for the past nine years. She led a course on modern cities at the Maryland Institute, and she taught a course on government grants at the Johns Hopkins University's night school, where one of her students was Myles Hoenig, president of the Waverly Improvement Association who is running against her as a Green Party candidate.

"He was a good student," Clarke says.

Was Clarke a good teacher?

"I'll say yes," says Hoenig, going for diplomacy after a slight pause. "I mean, I questioned everything. I believe in challenging everything." Including, in this campaign, one of the modern City Hall legends.

The other morning, Clarke talked over breakfast at One World Cafe on University Parkway across from Homewood Field. The world has turned over a few times since she vacated City Hall. The six, three-member councilmanic districts have been changed to 14 single-member divisions. Clarke would represent North Baltimore's 14th District.

She also would represent a throwback to another time.

"I had no yearnings to return to City Hall," she says. "Four years ago, people were telling me, `Why don't you run?' My feeling was public service is not a career; it's a time of your life where you give back to the place where you live. OK, I gave back. I didn't miss politics. But I didn't want this little corner of the world to become an orphan child. And it needs somebody in there who understands that the council is the people's place."

When she first arrived on the council three decades ago, it still carried the aura of some of its legendary names: William Donald Schaefer and Wally Orlinsky, Barbara Mikulski and Clarence Du Burns, Kweisi Mfume and Mimi DiPietro.

It was a body composed of distinguishable characters, sometimes comic. But the best of them understood the council's role: They were their constituents' servants, focusing on real day-to-day community problems.

"That's what this is all about," Clarke was saying now, referring to the vote to reduce the council's size and redistrict the city. "People were upset with accountability, and with access to their council members. The council is the link between government and the individual, the neighborhood, the community organization. You lose that, you lose your whole reason for existence."

For his part, Hoenig certainly understands this. He was one of the prime movers in undernourished Waverly's getting a Giant grocery store on Greenmount Avenue. As president of the improvement association, he is intimate with the community's triumphs -- and its troubles. He worked with developers to convert the Memorial Stadium property into senior citizen housing and a YMCA. He teaches English as a second language at Chinquapin Middle School.

And, if anything, he's more contemptuous of the current council than Clarke is.

"A coalition of the bribed," Hoenig calls it. "We have all these communities left out of the political process today because developers and special interests and private institutions control the destiny of the city, and the council" looks the other way. If, in fact, it takes any notice at all.

Clarke talks about all the vacant housing in the 14th District -- a subject dating to her City Hall days. Now she talks about starting a dollar-home program for middle-income families, similar to the effort that helped rejuvenate the Otterbein area.

"I'm tired of looking at vacant houses sitting there," she says. "I'm tired of neighborhoods getting lost in the shuffle."

After nine years, she emerges from the shadows of the classroom -- and finds, as her challenger, one of her former students.

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