Copyright 1998 The Baltimore Sun Company
The Sun (Baltimore)
November 22, 1998, Sunday, FINAL EDITION
SECTION: TELEGRAPH (NEWS), Pg. 1A
LENGTH: 3115 words
HEADLINE: Schmoke: 11 years later, still learning on the
job; Mayor: He continues to seek new ways to beat back the problems Baltimore
shares with the rest of the nation's aging industrial cities.
BYLINE: Gerard Shields, SUN STAFF
Meeting with Baltimore high school students earlier this
year, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke summed up his 11-year mayoral tenure in one
The Old Testament book tells of a hero who returns to find
his hometown in ruins. God calls upon Nehemiah to rebuild the city. A Harvard
professor introduced the tale to Schmoke.
"He told us that that was our mission," Schmoke recalled.
"To be latter-day Nehemiahs." When he was sworn into office more than a
ago, political analysts billed Schmoke as the new breed of U.S. mayor. At 37, he became one of the first African-American politicians in the
nation elected outside the civil rights struggle.
Many predicted that Schmoke would quickly ascend to governor, U.S. senator, Cabinet member or even vice presidential candidate.
The Rhodes scholar and former prosecutor hurdled Baltimore's
long-standing racial voting barriers, culling support from white business
and black ministers while gaining the praise of voters such as Anna Mechau, 50.
The white South Baltimore factory worker and mother of
10 viewed the former state's attorney as the antidote to the city's woeful
violent crime, rising taxes, chronic unemployment and racial schism.
"I thought, here's a young, intelligent man who can do so much for this city," Mechau recalled.
With the state election over, the political spotlight in
Baltimore turns to the 48-year-old Schmoke, who is expected to announce
during the next
six weeks whether he will seek his fourth four-year mayoral term in 1999. As happens every four years, the mayoral race prompts an
assessment of Schmoke's impact on the city.
Clearly, voters like Schmoke. In 1995, he beat former City
Council President Mary Pat Clarke with 60 percent of the vote, while recent
taken during the governor's race showed the mayor with a favorable rating among 57 percent of city residents.
But in a recent interview, Schmoke acknowledges that he
might not have become the city savior residents sought, however unrealistic
expectations. While Baltimore made unheralded strides in the past decade under Schmoke in removing decrepit public housing, improving health
care for the poor, pushing Inner Harbor growth and keeping the city financially sound, it continues to suffer in the three areas critical to any
city's reputation: schools, crime and taxes.
Middle-class families flee the city at a rate of 1,000
per month. Baltimore is expected to finish its ninth straight year with
more than 300
murders, more than 2,700 dead since 1989.
And despite a doubling of education funding, Schmoke surrendered
Baltimore schools to the state last year after the acting city schools
dubbed them "academically bankrupt."
The open drug dealing, violent crime, vacant housing and
wandering jobless frustrate residents such as the Rev. Melvin Tuggle, president
Clergy United for Renewal in East Baltimore, longtime Schmoke supporters.
"He didn't create many of these problems," Tuggle said of his mayor. "But he didn't solve them either.
Strides in public housing
Under Schmoke, Baltimore has rebuilt several poor neighborhoods,
such as Sandtown-Winchester and Pleasant View Gardens. Recently gaining
the federal money needed to tear down the last of its four high-rise public housing projects, the city will become the first in the nation to free a
generation of mostly black residents from the crime-infested caged housing.
The effort has turned around the lives of people such as
Cherrylle Elliott, 31, a former resident of the Lafayette Courts high-rise.
years in the projects, Elliott and her two children this year moved into a new red-brick townhouse in Pleasant View Gardens, down the street
from the new employment center and boys and girls clubs.
"The whole thing is great," said Elliott, who serves on
the community tenant council and neighborhood patrol. "You have a lot of
things here you
didn't have in the projects, and without Kurt Schmoke and President Clinton we wouldn't have gotten the comprehensive grant to have this."
Once ranked as a national leader in rates of AIDS, tuberculosis
and venereal disease, Baltimore gained ground during the past five years
because of programs such as needle exchanges and aggressive teen pregnancy counseling that Schmoke pushed.
During the past 10 years, the mayor has poured the largest
amount of additional city money - close to a half-billion dollars - into
"Fixing up neighborhoods is not considered glamorous,"
said Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson. "But he has
on areas of the city that were neglected for many years."
And while neighboring cities such as Philadelphia and Washington
faced bankruptcy during the recession eight years ago, Schmoke kept
Baltimore solvent as he cut city bureaucracy in half and eliminated nearly 3,400 city jobs.
Common city problems
The true measure of Baltimore's 46th mayor must be weighted against the deep sociological problems burdening American industrial cities.
Since 1949, when Schmoke was born, 300,000 people - almost
one of three Baltimore residents - left the city and 40,000 factory jobs
eroding its economic foundation and replacing its manufacturing punch with a lower-paying service economy.
Economic despair fueled the explosion of crack cocaine
and heroin that holds 59,000 city residents - almost one in 10 - addicted.
decades of housing segregation of black residents, half of Maryland's poor live in inner-city Baltimore.
The problems left even city gains negligible. City property
taxes dropped 2.5 percent under Schmoke, yet they remain double those of
other Maryland jurisdiction.
"Residents of the cities are inclined to blame their mayors
for this present state of affairs, but the truth is that no politician
can just administer
Baltimore City back to health," said David Rusk, a former Albuquerque, N.M., mayor and author of the 1996 book, "Baltimore Unbound." "No city
with that poverty burden can succeed."
Valerie Mack moved from East Baltimore to Baltimore County
four years ago, weary of the gunfire and drug dealing near her home at
and North Avenue. Yet the 37-year-old home products saleswoman lays no blame on Schmoke.
"He's doing the best he can with the resources he has," Mack said. "I blame the people in the community who don't stand up."
Two cities in one
When elected to lead Baltimore in 1987, Schmoke inherited
two cities: one surging under the economic renaissance of the Inner Harbor,
other crippled by inner-city poverty. Schmoke vowed to focus on the neglect.
Soon after his election, the former City College football
star gained national fame in 1988 by bucking the nation's war on drugs
and calling for
the government to treat addiction as a medical problem. Although deemed politically courageous, the move stigmatized Schmoke, branding him
the American mayor who wanted to legalize drugs.
In 1992, he privatized education, hiring a company to manage
nine woeful city schools. That effort ended in failure as pupil costs rose
scores fell. Schmoke had no choice but to dismiss the company two years later.
His bold political steps - ranging from hiring Nation of
Islam guards for city housing projects to making the contraceptive Norplant
public school teen-agers - are countered by his inability to heal festering city wounds, such as violent crime and inefficient schools.
Despite adding 200 officers and spending $ 60 million more
per year for police, Schmoke presided over the highest murder rate in city
Two months ago, he returned from Cleveland calling for Baltimore police to copy that city's strategy of increasing traffic stops to intercept
drugs and guns traveling through the city.
The plan is the latest in a line of crime crackdowns during the past four years that have done little to stem the carnage.
"It's still raging," said 82-year-old Rose Coleman, who
lives on the fourth floor of a seniors high-rise in East Baltimore. "At
night, you can hear
the gunshots. I've been a little disappointed that things didn't shape up better."
It wasn't until this year - a decade later - that the city doubled its drug treatment funding to $ 32 million.
"There's just been an evolution in my thinking as to what
we could do at the local level," Schmoke said in a recent interview. "When
I came in in
'87, I thought improving public education should be my highest priority. I still believe in the long run better education can reduce the drug
problem. But given the large number of addicts we already have, I decided we needed to attack the problems directly."
The statement provides a key insight into Schmoke's service
as mayor: learning on the job. He began his administration trying to tackle
issues, such as drug treatment and naming Baltimore "The City That Reads." The mayor learned the hard way that making such claims a reality
in Baltimore neighborhoods requires finding millions of dollars while dealing with stagnating city tax revenues.
"I learned that the health of the city is greatly dependent
on the health of the national economy," said Schmoke, who blames the 1990
recession for stalling many administration goals. "There were a lot of plans that we had in 1988 and 1989 that we weren't able to implement."
Schmoke's predecessor, William Donald Schaefer, faults
his successor for taking on the job without being seasoned in the ways
"Schaefer's chief success was his apprenticeship," the
recently elected state comptroller said. "I served as a community leader,
council president, mayor and then governor."
Schmoke agrees that his experience as the Baltimore state's
attorney failed to adequately prepare him for City Hall. "State's attorney
is not a
job in which you seek consensus," Schmoke said. "You don't take a poll before you indict somebody."
Revival passes city by
Many American cities are experiencing an urban revival that Baltimore has failed to tap.
Two years ago, Newsweek magazine listed America's 25 most
dynamic mayors, excluding Schmoke. The magazine concluded that successful
mayors held two common attributes: a common touch and a dynamic personality.
Schmoke is criticized for having neither.
Unlike blustery mayors such as New York's Rudolph W. Giuliani,
San Francisco's Willie Brown, Cleveland's Michael White or Baltimore's
Schmoke views city problems cerebrally, more as a chess match than a life-and-death struggle.
His nonassertive management style comes across to some
as feckless, a lack of passion for his job that cascades to other levels
Affable, with a brilliant smile, the well-tailored Schmoke
travels to community meetings flanked by bodyguards, making him appear
the troubles on Baltimore streets. The mayor even avoids walking through City Hall, entering and exiting through a private tunnel.
Clarke, whom Schmoke defeated in 1995, faults Schmoke most for failing to get out and lead the charge in promoting Baltimore.
"As mayor, you're like the coach of a football team, and
you can't sit on the sidelines reading the New York Times," Clarke said.
"This is a live
American city, and you have to go out there every day and make it shine."
Not without passion
City Real Estate Officer Anthony J. Ambridge, a 13-year
City Council member, calls the questioning of Schmoke's passion unfair.
the papers to hand over the city school system to the state last year to guarantee $ 254 million of future state aid to Baltimore schoolchildren,
the mayor wept.
"People don't realize the sacrifices he makes for that
job," Ambridge said. "Do you know how much money he could have made in
sector? Do you know what a pain-in-the-ass job that is, never having a moment to yourself? You don't make sacrifices like that without
Schmoke sees himself more as a city advocate than a cheerleader,
yet he has increased his public appearances, attending up to a dozen
events a week.
"I had to learn that the word 'mayor' is an active verb,
you have to get out and mayor," Schmoke said. "But you can't be a person
than who you really are. People will see right through that you are a phony."
Unlike most politicians - 80 percent pomp, 20 percent service
- Schmoke is fully secure with himself, shunning the limelight. The shy
has cost him, leaving accomplishments unheralded.
"Mayor Schmoke does not care how he is perceived," said
Jim Regensburg of the Maryland Citizens for Responsible Government. "There
been a consummate effort to make the good things he is doing as apparent."
Schmoke's biggest liability from the outset has been his
Cabinet appointments, including several initial picks that became downright
Since taking office in 1987, the mayor has had three police commissioners and five school superintendents.
Voters hoped Schmoke's administration would be a mini-Camelot,
brimming with young minds recruited from across the nation that would turn
Baltimore into a liberal policy laboratory.
Today, his public works director, George G. Balog, is under
FBI investigation on suspicion of steering city contracts to Schmoke contributors,
allegations Balog and Schmoke deny. His housing commissioner, Daniel P. Henson III, is dogged by federal officials with questions about the
spending of millions of federal housing dollars.
And his embattled police commissioner, Thomas C. Frazier,
fends off City Council complaints about embedded department racism, publishing
exaggerated drop in shootings and lacking the ability to reduce the city's homicide rate.
"Although Mayor Schmoke may be a good man, there is a fear
that he is not as attentive to watching over the people he appoints," Regensburg
said. "It makes Baltimore look like a pretty scary place."
Schmoke's supervision of his staff is much like his politics:
liberal. Unlike his iron-fisted predecessor, Schaefer, who made it a point
to ride city
directors, Schmoke allows department directors leeway in running the offices he hired them to manage.
"He is always looking for new and innovative ideas," city
Planning Director Charles Graves said. "He gives you enough rope to let
you make the
decisions, and he gives you enough rope to hang yourself."
Added Henson: "He is what this city needed at the time,
a person who was thoughtful and cared about people. When he makes a decision,
because he really cares, not for political reasons."
Tag continues to dog him
Schmoke will likely go down in American political history
as the mayor who wanted to legalize drugs, a tag he continually rejects.
doesn't regret the comments, he would change them, he said.
"I would have proposed an alternative and not just raised the question," he said.
But as the end of Schmoke's third term nears, Baltimore's
story remains the tale of two cities. The mayor has attained his goal of
Inner Harbor growth, presiding over two new stadiums, the first of two new hotels planned, the number of city tourists rising to 13 million a year
and a $ 350 million proposal to rebuild the west side of downtown.
His greatest skill has been his ability to attract more
federal and state aid while subsidies diminished elsewhere. Schmoke points
to the $ 100
million federal Empowerment Zone that the city acquired in 1994 to lure new jobs and businesses as one of his proudest accomplishments.
"I give him credit for keeping the city afloat," said Democrat
Clarence W. Blount, Senate majority leader. "It took a little genius to
keep the city
Yet the city poor remain paralyzed. Seven out of 10 Baltimore
children are born to unwed mothers, one in 10 city residents is on welfare
Baltimore's jobless rate hovers at 8 percent, almost double the national average. And that figure fails to take into account the jobless who have
never made contact with government agencies, such as the city's thriving illegal drug trade.
Social workers such as Tuggle, the East Baltimore minister,
lament that 11 years after Schmoke's election as mayor, Inner Harbor prosperity
failed to reach their troubled neighborhoods.
"My hope when Kurt ran for mayor was that Baltimore would
be the Atlanta of the Northeast, that we would have economic development
fewer poor," said Tuggle. "Our hands are still full."
Looking back, Schmoke points to education and his inability
to turn around the school system as the biggest disappointment and laments
his administration has not been given more credit for city gains during the past 11 years.
But if he chooses not to run, Schmoke will exit with his
own evaluation of his tenure. When polling residents during campaigns,
the mayor asks
one question that he says best sums up whether he has been successful as a mayor: Does the mayor care about people like me?
Schmoke proudly boasts that the answer has been consistently
yes. As he turns 49 next week, Schmoke is confident he has given Baltimore
best. Yet he has served in politics long enough to know this self-evaluation may not be remembered.
"People define politicians by the rung of the ladder they missed," Schmoke said, "rather than the rung of the ladder they achieved."
1949: Schmoke born Dec. 1.
1963: Becomes Baltimore mayor for a day at age 14.
1966: Leads City College to undefeated season as quarterback.
1967: First African-American elected City College student president.
1971: Earns history degree from Yale University.
1975: Rhodes scholar at Oxford University.
1976: Graduates from Harvard Law School, joins Piper and Marbury law firm.
1977: Takes position on President Jimmy Carter's domestic policy staff.
1978: Becomes assistant U.S. attorney.
1981: Elected state's attorney for Baltimore.
1987: Becomes first African-American elected mayor of Baltimore, defeating former City Council President and Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns.
1988: Gains national attention calling drug abuse a health, not criminal, problem.
1991: Elected second to term.
1992: Hires private company to handle nine troubled city schools.
1993: Hires Nation of Islam guards to provide security at city housing projects.
1994: Dismisses EAI, the company handling schools.
1995: Elected to third term with primary win over council President Mary Pat Clarke.
1997: Signs city school system over to state in exchange for $ 254 million in aid.
1998: Bucks incumbent Gov. Parris N. Glendening, supporting rival in primary election.
Pub date: 11/22/98