Back on his own terms

Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke has enjoyed being out of the public spotlight, but he's not above returning to make a political point.


After six years spent largely outside the public spotlight, former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was suddenly back - in one of the more remarkable images that followers of local politics have seen in recent years.

There, in a photograph on the front page of The Sun on Oct. 21, was Schmoke and his longtime nemesis and predecessor as mayor, William Donald Schaefer, flanking the man who finally got them on the same side of a political issue: Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who was announcing his candidacy for governor with their support.

Schmoke's endorsement immediately triggered speculation: Was the former mayor, who took office with such promise but left it 12 years later to much disappointment, back in the game? Was he himself going to run for office, maybe as Duncan's running mate?

Schmoke is quick to head off questions about a political comeback with an emphatic "No."

No, he's not interested in being lieutenant governor.

No, he doesn't have his sights on the U.S. Senate.

No, he's not trying to gauge his following among local voters.

In fact, Schmoke wanted "no" understood before he would even consent to an interview.

"I certainly wasn't announcing my return to elective office," he said, "so the subsequent [speculation] I saw suggesting I might be a lieutenant governor candidate has no basis in fact. I can put a nail to that one."

That his support of Duncan would cause such a buzz is testament to the lingering curiosity about Schmoke, even now that he's reached the settled age of 56. He seemed, from his high school days on, destined for high public office, and his election as mayor in 1987 was considered just the first step.

But instead, he left office in 1999 with the city's murder rate skyrocketing - more than 300 people were killed in Baltimore every year in the 1990s - the schools that he vowed to improve in disarray and the sense by many that he never realized his political potential. Although he remained personally popular with voters, he retreated from public life, and three years ago became Howard University's law school dean.

"He was mayor during a very difficult time, and I think he learned as he went along," said Michael Cryor, a Baltimore political consultant and veteran of Schmoke's campaigns. "I didn't get a sense he enjoyed it. I got a sense he felt a responsibility to it.

"He was a real statesman and a great professor. But just the real world of politics, I just got the sense at times that it was not his natural world, but a world he was willing to operate in on behalf of his community."

Today, he seems more at home in his current job. His office on the Washington campus is filled with his favorite artwork, snapshots taken with U.S. presidents, a bobblehead doll of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and a photo of his Rhodes scholar class.

"I'm on the second row in the photo, and there's [former Fannie Mae CEO] Frank Raines standing behind me," said Schmoke with a soft smile. His attire is Harvard Review meets Gentlemen's Quarterly: gray designer slacks, cool-blue dress shirt and magenta suspenders.

The one time during the interview that Schmoke's soothing voice ventured above nightly news level was when he was asked what he missed most about being mayor.

"I miss the car and the driver," he said. Then he reared back, tightened his eyes and roared with laughter at his own punch line.

"Seriously," he said, back in his more businesslike mode, "I do miss the opportunity to make improvements in people's lives."

He still believes he can do that, without being in office himself.

"I'm interested in [Duncan] as a candidate because I know him as an elected official, as a friend," said Schmoke. "I know there is real substance and integrity about the guy, and I think he would make a great governor."

He says his endorsement shouldn't be viewed as a criticism of Mayor Martin O'Malley, who is also running for governor, and who, as a city councilman, was among those frequently critical of Schmoke during his tenure as mayor.

Schmoke aims to make Duncan more visible in Baltimore's black communities, and to that end he has canvassed black barber shops and beauty salons with Duncan in tow. He plans to become more involved with Duncan's campaign in the spring.

Beyond that, he says, "I have not talked about my being lieutenant governor with Duncan, other than to let his senior staff people know that I am not interested and that they shouldn't even hold that out as a possibility."

Time in office

Six years has given Schmoke plenty of time to reflect on his political career and move on, and he has done both. He talks candidly about his tenure as mayor, about the joy that came with the opportunity to better the city, but also about things he wished he had done differently.

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