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Up In Schmoke

Why biracial politics failed in Baltimore.

Schmoke is spending his Saturday afternoon at Dunbar High School, a drab fortress of a building in blighted East Baltimore, where he has come to hear from the neighborhood's beleaguered residents. Standing in the school's dingy library--with out-of-date magazines lining its shelves and out-of-synch aphorisms ("the price of justice is eternal publicity") hanging from its walls--Schmoke listens as a neighborhood minister, the Reverend Milton Williams, asks for divine intervention. "Lord, give your continued blessing to the mayor," Williams intones, "and the staff he depends on to keep Baltimore functioning."

Indeed, it's a prayerful request because, for Baltimore, functioning is about the most you can ask. Like so many other "smoke stack" cities decimated by the shift away from an industrial economy, Baltimore is plagued with violent crime, faltering schools, and high unemployment. But the people who have come to Dunbar want to voice more mundane concerns. And, as they approach the mayor's lectern to unburden themselves, it becomes clear that, in Baltimore, even the mundane can be horrific.

Schmoke nods his head and grimaces as each one tells him that his or her situation is intolerable, and he looks genuinely touched when they thank him for coming to listen. Then he dispatches each complainant to one of the aides he has brought with him, until all of his aides are talking with residents, and the din threatens to drown out the mayor's voice.

It's a scene that few would have imagined eleven years ago, when Schmoke, at the age of 37, became the first black elected mayor of Baltimore. Back then, both the city and Schmoke were on the rise. Baltimore had just rebuilt its downtown, having transformed rows of abandoned buildings into a tourist mecca called the Inner Harbor. And Schmoke, who had promised to focus on housing and education in order to spread prosperity to the city's forgotten and impoverished neighborhoods, was a politician with seemingly unlimited potential. He had a dazzling intellect, a sparkling resume, and, most importantly, the rare ability to appeal to both black and white voters.

That made Schmoke's election much more than just a Baltimore story. For years, racial polarizers had run America's major cities. White mayors like Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia stoked whites' fears of blacks; then, as urban demographics began to shift, it was black politicians like Marion Barry in Washington, D.C., who played on blacks' resentment of whites. But, with his explicitly biracial appeal, Schmoke appeared to spell the end--or at least the beginning of the end--of this era. With Schmoke's victory, it seemed, the great liberal dream for urban politics had become a reality.

National Journal christened Schmoke the symbol of a "new generation of black mayors"--"politically pragmatic" leaders, more "coalition builders than confrontationists," who heralded the revival of America's cities. In fact, it was presumed that, by 1998, Baltimore would be rid of its urban ills and Schmoke would have moved on to the Maryland governor's office in Annapolis or to the U.S. Senate in Washington. And, in making these strides, it was hoped, Schmoke would be setting an example for urban leaders across the country.

But things haven't worked out that way. The promise of the Inner Harbor has never reached far beyond the city's still-bustling downtown, and the promise of truly biracial politics has never materialized in what is a 60-percent- black town. Nearly three years into his third four-year term as mayor, the grandest statewide role Schmoke appears capable of playing is that of spoiler. In April he endorsed a little-known county executive, Eileen Rehrmann, in her primary challenge against the incumbent Democratic governor, Parris Glendening. Schmoke's move infuriated state party leaders, who contend that Glendening has been good to Baltimore in his four years as governor. But Schmoke claims Glendening cannot win reelection. Moreover, he appears to hold a personal grudge against the governor. Schmoke maintains that Glendening reneged on a commitment to legalize slot machines in Maryland--a commitment Glendening has denied making. Speaking to reporters after announcing his endorsement of Rehrmann, Schmoke plaintively said that, had it not been for the slots disagreement, "we probably wouldn't be here today."

But, even though Schmoke's move brought him a fair amount of negative attention, at least it was attention. The heady talk of a decade ago, when people credulously speculated that Schmoke might be the country's first black vice president, is a distant memory. Today, many in Maryland's white Democratic establishment have written off Schmoke as just another big-city black mayor who survives through racial politics rather than management skills. "The Democratic Leadership Council recently put out a list of the half-dozen or so black mayors who have biracial appeal and who are making government work better," says Sandy Rosenberg, a state delegate from Baltimore, who supported Schmoke in his three mayoral runs. "And Kurt wasn't mentioned... And it's not without reason that he wasn't mentioned."

For Schmoke, who has spent much of his career reaffirming the faith whites have placed in him, this is a deeply painful outcome. And, as faith in Schmoke has evaporated, so too has faith in the biracial coalition politics whose arrival he once heralded. "Kurt was such a demigod back then, and the expectation levels for him were so high that maybe there's no way he could have ever met them," laments one prominent white Baltimorean. "But, the point is, he hasn't met them." Then again, maybe the point is, who could?

Kurt Schmoke was only 14 the first time he was introduced as the first black mayor of Baltimore. Back then he was a standout football player at City College High School, Baltimore's elite public school. At the urging of several white classmates, he had joined a predominantly Jewish boys' club called the Lancers. A relic of the 1950s, the group sought to inculcate the schoolyard virtues--leadership, integrity, service--in young men. And it was at one of the Lancers' Friday night meetings that Schmoke, one of the first blacks to join the group, came to the attention of Robert Hammerman, a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge who served as the Lancers' adviser.

Hammerman, a lifelong bachelor who has no children, took an active interest in Schmoke, whose own mother and father--a civilian chemist with the Army and a clerk for the Social Security administration, respectively--had recently divorced. Soon, the two were seeing each other not only at the Friday meetings but on Saturdays as well, when Hammerman would treat Schmoke to lunches at the sumptuous Johns Hopkins Club. Over those meals, which could last as long as five hours, Hammerman told Schmoke he had big plans for him. " Right off the bat, I could sense Kurt's intelligence, his warm personality, his natural leadership ability," recalls Hammerman, who retired from the bench in July as the longest-serving jurist in Maryland. "And I told him he was made for a lot more than football. He was meant for leadership. I told him not to consider going to a football factory college. I told him to consider the Ivy League... Right at the age of fourteen, I wanted to put it in his mind that he should be thinking in that direction."

It wasn't long before Hammerman was introducing Schmoke to Baltimore's political elite. "I wanted him to get exposure to prominent political and legal leaders, both black and white," says Hammerman. "I've always maintained that, from the time Kurt was fourteen, you could be the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, and if you met Kurt Schmoke you'd support him for president of the United States. He had that natural, magnetic appeal. You get to know him, you meet him, and you fall in love with him."

Hammerman was certainly on to something. During his junior year, Schmoke was elected president of his class, and, in his senior year, he was the first black ever elected student body president of the predominantly white City College High School, winning by the largest majority in the school's history. Schmoke was also the all-conference quarterback of the school's undefeated football team--and the nation's top colleges lined up to recruit him. "Kurt was probably the hottest thing that had come out of Baltimore in years," recalls Lewis Noonberg, a former Lancer several years older than Schmoke, who tried to recruit him to his alma mater, Dartmouth. "Public school, black, bright, good athlete, handsome: He had it all." Eventually, Schmoke listened to Calvin Hill, a black football star at Yale who shared Schmoke's Baltimore roots; in the fall of 1967, he went to New Haven.

Schmoke's four years at Yale coincided with one of the most tumultuous periods in the school's history. New Haven was buffeted by antiwar and civil rights protests--spurred by an influx of black students who, for the first time in the school's history, were admitted in large numbers. But Schmoke remained relatively aloof. Although he joined the Black Student Alliance at Yale and occasionally sported a dashiki, Schmoke was considered something of a loner by the other, more militant black students.

Schmoke concentrated on his history studies, played football and lacrosse-- and infiltrated the school's mainstream. He won a prized seat on Yale's facultystudent planning committee on coeducation, and he was elected to the office of class secretary. From those positions, Schmoke worked toward progressive ends. Most notably, he convinced the school to establish a day care center, which it named after Calvin Hill, for the children of black New Haven mothers who made up the bulk of Yale's custodial staff.

But it wasn't until his junior year that Schmoke truly distinguished himself and once again rewarded the faith that had been placed in him. In the spring of 1970, Bobby Seale and eight other Black Panthers went on trial in New Haven for the torture and murder of another Black Panther they suspected of being a police informer. The trial became a focal point for all sorts of grievances, and it wasn't long before black militants and white radicals were descending upon New Haven. Students went on strike; by May Day weekend, Yale was braced for an invasion of 50,000 protesters.

Several days before the scheduled protests, the faculty met to plan a response. They were inclined to meet the May Day demonstrations with stiff resistance, but, with 1,000 striking students massed outside, they agreed to admit one to press the students' case. Schmoke was that student.

Most faculty members expected a harangue about racial injustice and white oppression, but Schmoke appealed to them in different terms. "Many of the students in the group that had gathered outside the meeting are committed to a cause," Schmoke said, "but there are a great number of students on campus who are confused and many who are frightened. They don't know what to think. You are our teachers. You are the people we respect. We look to you for guidance and moral leadership. On behalf of my fellow students, I beg you to give it to us."

John Hersey, in his book Letter to the Alumni, credited Schmoke with appeasing the faculty conservatives urging a crackdown, thereby defusing a potentially explosive situation. The May Day demonstrations unfolded in a relatively peaceful fashion without any serious incidents. A week after New Haven's May Day, four students were killed in similar demonstrations at Kent State.

Schmoke's performance earned him Yale's eternal gratitude. (Today he sits on the board of the Yale Corporation.) And in Schmoke's senior year the school heartily supported him for a Rhodes Scholarship. After two years at Oxford, he entered Harvard Law School. Then it was back to Baltimore to join silk-stocking Piper & Marbury as one of its first black associates. A Lancers connection in the Carter administration briefly lured Schmoke from Baltimore to the White House's domestic policy staff, but Schmoke soon returned to his hometown, where he began work as an assistant U.S. attorney--and set his sights on elected office.

In 1982, Schmoke ran for Baltimore's top prosecutor job. Facing a conservative white incumbent who played on whites' fears of black crime, Schmoke lined up support among white liberals and blacks. Schmoke used his connections from Piper & Marbury and the Lancers to court the city's white establishment; his campaign manager, Larry Gibson, a brash black law professor who is still his political guru, drummed up support in the black community.

The strategy worked. Schmoke secured endorsements from Baltimore's three major newspapers, the state attorney general, and a former U.S. attorney general, not to mention generous campaign contributions from rich whites-- prompting his opponent's campaign chief to deride Schmoke as the favorite of Baltimore's "candy-assed limousine liberal s ." More importantly, Schmoke drew unprecedented support from Baltimore's new black majority, boosting black turnout by 20 points and sweeping the city's black precincts.

As the city's prosecutor, Schmoke impressed both blacks and whites with his even-handed approach to racially charged cases such as the shooting of a black motorcyclist by a white off-duty policeman. In 1987, Schmoke won the mayoralty, once again drawing on endorsements and money from Baltimore's white establishment and votes from its new black majority. Schmoke's ascension to the job he had been groomed for since he was a teenager prompted celebration across the city. Baltimore's white establishment, mindful of the city's changing demographics, congratulated itself for engineering an orderly transition of power to a black mayor it could trust. And Baltimore's black citizens rejoiced in their new political power.

But the incompatible interests of both groups inevitably began to take their toll on Schmoke, and the honeymoon didn't last long. For 14 of the 15 years prior to Schmoke's victory, Baltimore had been led by William Donald Schaefer--a beloved cheerleader of a mayor who in 1986 had ascended to the governor's office. While Schaefer had fueled Baltimore's downtown renaissance, relentlessly promoting the city's Inner Harbor to lure conventions and tourists, he had failed to maintain the city's tax base. Some 150,000 people, most of them white and middle class, left the city during Schaefer's time in office; in Schaefer's last six years as mayor, the city suffered a net loss of 7,700 jobs.

When Schmoke took over, he christened Baltimore "The City that Reads," plastering the slogan on bus shelters and city vehicles. "The ingenuity, courage, and money that built the waterfront," Schmoke was fond of saying, " can now build the home front." But Baltimore's business community had grown accustomed to receiving the mayor's undivided attention. Moreover, Schmoke set his sights on the home front right about the time that crack was flooding Baltimore and federal aid to cities was drying up. It wasn't long before the grumbling started.

Schmoke's meritocratic credentials created the expectation that he would be an excellent manager. " H e seems a younger black version of Michael Dukakis," gushed a Newsweek profile of the new mayor, back when people still believed in Massachusetts miracles and Dukakis embodied the managerial ideal. But this mischaracterized Schmoke. He was not so much a manager as he was a thinker. In his time as mayor, Schmoke has come up with all sorts of innovative--and politically courageous--public policy ideas. But, most often, the execution of these ideas has been wanting. In 1988, for example, Schmoke drew national attention--and scorn--for advocating treatment instead of prosecution for drug addicts. But it took him ten years to institute a "treatment on demand" policy for Baltimore's estimated 50,000 addicts. In 1992, Schmoke took the bold step of privatizing nine underperforming public schools. But then he turned the job over to a relatively unproven education company, which raised the city's cost-per-student while, for two of three years, lowering those students' already dismal test scores. Schmoke terminated the company's contract two years before it was due to expire.

As the city's problems mounted--partly because of circumstances beyond the mayor's control, partly because of managerial ineptitude--Schmoke became desperate for solutions. "He's trying as hard as he can to address some of the very difficult issues that are in the neighborhoods," says Bart Harvey, the director of a Baltimore nonprofit that provides affordable housing to low- income people. "And the voters in those neighborhoods appreciate that." But that appreciation hasn't always been shared by everyone in the city. Some were embarrassed when Schmoke invited the Agency for International Development to explain how best to apply some of its Third World programs-- like immunization and breast-feeding--to Baltimore. In 1993, Schmoke contracted the Nation of Islam Security Agency to patrol Baltimore's crime- infested public housing projects. Even though the force did root out crime in some projects, the symbolism of embracing Louis Farrakhan's minions cost Schmoke dearly. Jewish leaders--including individuals who had known and supported Schmoke since his Lancers days--could not abide the mayor's decision. In 1987, one Baltimore Jewish politician had said, Schmoke was " every Jewish mother's dream." Now Jewish protesters heckled and picketed him when he appeared in public.

Schmoke ran for his third term in 1995 against City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, a facile white populist in the Schaefer mold. Schmoke used red, black, and green for his campaign colors and "Makes Us Proud" for his campaign slogan. The city's white establishment reared back in horror. "You didn't have to be a Rhodes Scholar to see he was making a racial appeal," says one white Baltimore politician in a typically biting remark. The Sun endorsed Clarke, calling Schmoke "a sad disappointment." But Schmoke's racial ploy worked, and he trounced Clarke by 20 points. Even though Clarke outpolled Schmoke nine-to-one in many white sections of the city, Schmoke outpolled her nine-to-one in most of the black neighborhoods. As Elijah Cummings, a black Baltimore politician who now serves in the U.S. House of Representatives, told The Washington Post: Black voters saw Schmoke "as a home-grown man... They saw him as their son... We just did not want to be a New York and lose David Dinkins."

Whites, however, treated Schmoke's victory as a great betrayal. They felt he had abandoned his biracial coalition, and, mindful of his statewide ambitions, they penned his political obituary. "He played the race card, and it capped his political potential," says one prominent white Democrat. "That sort of thing gives politics a bad name. It doesn't just go away... I think it will be hard to run for the U.S. Senate and win after that. How's he going to put together the votes?"

But, if Schmoke abandoned the biracialism that so endeared him to whites, it's also true that the biracial coalition whites marveled at was, in many ways, a figment of their collective imagination. Schmoke has never polled more than 40 percent of the white vote in a contested primary, and in most of his races he has always polled somewhere in the 20s among whites. When national publications were hailing Schmoke as the great biracial hope in 1987, they overlooked the fact that he had lost the three city council districts that were predominantly white. While the white support Schmoke did receive was certainly prominent, coming as it did from editorial boards and civic leaders, it was never very deep. In Baltimore's vote-rich, white ethnic enclaves, Schmoke never had a prayer.

Meanwhile, as he governed, Schmoke frequently had to defy the black community's wishes: he appointed a white police commissioner over the objections of black ministers; he allowed high school health clinics to distribute the contraceptive drug Norplant despite protests that he was committing genocide against blacks; and he turned over partial control of the city school system, Baltimore's largest government operation, to a white governor in exchange for $254 million in state aid, prompting some in the black community to label the man from Yale, Oxford, and Harvard a "sellout."

Sitting in a baronial conference room in City Hall, Schmoke takes intermittent sips from a paper cup of cranberry juice and tries to explain his 1995 campaign. "It involved consolidating my base vote in the city," he says, drumming his fingers on the table to emphasize the point. "And my base vote has historically been the African American community... If I were running in Denver or Seattle, where my friend Wellington Webb was an African American mayor and Norm Rice was an African American mayor--very different type of community. Very different type of election. They won in cities where the African American population is a distinct minority, and yet they won with different types of appeals. That's not the history of elections in Baltimore.. .. I think that some in the law firms and some of these businesses ... either didn't pay attention to the nature of city politics or they chose to ignore it."

For a man who was supposed to represent a color-blind ideal, Schmoke is now remarkably haunted by questions of race. Several weeks before we met, he became embroiled in a controversy over plans by the Department of Housing and Urban Development's inspector general to launch a fraud crackdown at the behest of a congressional subcommittee. The investigation's initial targets were housing authorities in New Orleans, San Francisco, and Baltimore--three cities that have both black Democratic mayors and black housing commissioners. When the selections were announced, there were cries of racism, but Schmoke initially refused to join in.

It was only after a meeting with HUD's inspector general--during which Schmoke says the inspector general could not answer his questions about what criteria had been used to select the three cities--that Schmoke concluded that the investigation smacked of politics and race. (HUD's inspector general, Susan Gaffney, has declined to comment on the specifics of the investigation but has defended her personal conduct, saying she is "dismayed and outraged someone would call me racist for looking for fraud.") While Schmoke's detractors jumped to accuse him of playing the race card, it's not entirely implausible that race was a factor in these decisions. After all, the inspector general has been unable to produce any criteria, and the investigation has now been postponed, pending the development of new criteria to determine the cities to be targeted. Still, for some, the affair is just further proof that Schmoke is not the man they thought him to be. "I can't seem to disabuse some people of the notion that I'm like Huey Newton or someone," Schmoke quips.

But behind the joke is a certain resignation, as if Schmoke knows that, despite his talk about a possible run for the U.S. Senate, he will never rise above his current office. As the promise of biracial politics has dried up, so too has the promise of Schmoke's political career. "One of the things that I saw a long time ago was that a lot of people defined politicians by the rung of the ladder that they missed, rather than the rung of the ladder they achieved," he muses. "A person whose career I respect a great deal is Thomas Dewey's. I mean some of the things he did in New York as governor ... were very progressive for the time and really helped bring New York State into the modern era. But, for most people who think of Tom Dewey, he is the guy who lost the election to Harry Truman."

It's now mid-June, about two weeks after the woebegone meeting at Dunbar, and Schmoke finds himself in far different environs. He's standing under a tent, pitched on a barren patch of land just east of the Inner Harbor, preparing to break ground on the city's first new hotel in a decade. About 300 people have gathered to celebrate the event. The majority of those in attendance are hospitality-industry executives--mostly white men in sporty sunglasses and flashy suits with the occasional cell phone pressed to an ear.

To lure developers to the downtown site, Schmoke promised about $25 million in tax breaks. And, with so many other parts of the city seemingly in more need of public money than Baltimore's downtown, Schmoke's promise has provoked derision from some quarters. Moreover, given Schmoke's recent battle over legalized slot machines with Governor Glendening, some fear that Schmoke intends for this hotel to become Baltimore's first casino.

Indeed, it appears that Schmoke has come full circle. Eleven years after promising to shift the city's priorities from the Inner Harbor to the neighborhoods, Schmoke has fallen back on the shopworn development strategy of tourism and conventions. Sitting on an AstroTurf dais, he listens as the hotel's backers sing the project's praises. "It will mean millions of dollars in tax revenue and thousands of new jobs," exclaims one. "Baltimore will fulfill its destiny as a great convention destination," predicts another. " People will be able to walk from the Inner Harbor to Fells Point and be entertained the whole way," sputters one more.

Then Schmoke steps to the microphone. The mayor proclaims the hotel " thrilling" and "visionary." "This is the right hotel in the right place," he practically shouts. "This is world class." Schmoke moves his arms and pounds the lectern and lays out what is now his vision of Baltimore's future--a vision of gleaming hotels and abundant tourists and satisfied conventioneers. "Let me tell you," Schmoke says, as a broad smile spreads across his face. "I am a happy guy today." And you wish you could believe him.