Kurt Schmoke Biography
Started Strong, Wise Beyond His Years, A Successful Lawyer, Strong Start as Mayor of Baltimore
Kurt L. Schmoke made history in 1987 when he became the first black man elected mayor of Baltimore, Maryland. At that time he was considered a rising star in American politics, with some mentioning him as a potential Senate or even vice-presidential candidate. The promise of his early career, however, ran aground on the difficulties of running America's eleventh largest city. In his three terms as mayor of the city, Schmoke earned a reputation for developing innovative approaches to urban problems. Yet the failure of those approaches to address Baltimore's persistent problems, including poverty, crime, and urban decay, eventually diminished Schmoke's reputation, and he chose not to seek reelection in 1999. However, Schmoke's impressive academic credentials, his studious, professional demeanor, and his skill at solving problems have contributed to his continuing career as a lawyer and, since 2003, as Dean of the Howard University School of Law.
Schmoke's rise to the Baltimore mayor's office was both swift and unique. His relative youth and inexperience notwithstanding, he beat an older and highly popular candidate (also black) who had the backing of the city's former mayor and a circle of powerful friends. Schmoke won the race by appealing to young and liberal voters—and by addressing the many problems still facing Baltimore despite the city's well-publicized cosmetic improvements. Schmoke's agenda was not nearly as flamboyant as that of his predecessor, William Donald Schaefer, but it was certainly more pragmatic. The new mayor of Baltimore wanted to improve the city's school system, fight illiteracy and teenage pregnancy, and prepare Baltimore's citizens for a job market that required high-tech skills. "There comes a time when people feel it's time for a change," Schmoke told the Washington Post in 1987. "To a great extent, people [are] looking for a fresh start."
Kurt Schmoke was not born into poverty or illiteracy. His parents were both college graduates with good jobs, and he was their only child. Growing up in Baltimore, Schmoke was encouraged to excel in school not only by his parents but also by Marion Bascom, the pastor of the Douglas Memorial Community Church. Everyone assumed Schmoke would attend college too, preferably his father's alma mater, Morehouse University in Atlanta. In the Washington Post, Bascom remembered the young Kurt Schmoke as "a quiet, unassuming boy, but always a boy whom you felt had great depth of mind and spirit."
Schmoke is the first to admit that he profited from the controversial Supreme Court decision that mandated integration of all public schools. Because he became a student shortly after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, he was given the opportunity to attend predominantly white schools, where he earned good grades while participating in a variety of sports. Schmoke attended Baltimore's City College (a public high school), serving as both school president and starting quarterback in his senior year. Even before he turned eighteen he was a minor celebrity in Baltimore for leading City College to a state championship in football.
Wise Beyond His Years
Schmoke's poise and maturity as a teenager caught the attention of Robert Hammerman, a white Baltimore city judge who devoted his spare time to running a club for boys. Hammerman invited Schmoke to join the club, known as the Lancers, and the two quickly became close friends. It was Hammerman who suggested that Schmoke aim high in his choice of a college, and it was also Hammerman who told Schmoke about the Rhodes Scholarship for study at Oxford University in England. Schmoke had already decided upon a career in politics and law, so Hammerman introduced him to a number of influential Baltimore lawyers and legislators. Some observers feel it may have been Hammerman who suggested that Schmoke aim for the mayor's office, but others claim that Schmoke had wanted to be mayor of Baltimore from the time he was a small boy.
At any rate, failure was almost unknown to Kurt Schmoke as a youth. After graduating from City College he enrolled in Yale University, continuing to distinguish himself as an athlete and a student leader. Schmoke found himself in college in the late 1960s, when anti-war sentiment turned many campuses into near battlegrounds. In the spring of 1970 tensions erupted at Yale during the New Haven murder trial of Black Panther activist Bobby Seale. As Seale's trial progressed downtown, a group of Yale students massed outside the campus administration building, quickly becoming an angry mob. Inside the building, as faculty members predicted the university's imminent destruction, Yale president Kingman Brewster agreed to hear one representative from the students outside. Kurt Schmoke was chosen to be that representative.
If the assembled Yale faculty expected an avalanche of abuse that day, it was only because they did not know Kurt Schmoke. Not yet 20, Schmoke calmly took the podium and merely said: "The students on this campus are confused, they're frightened. They don't know what to think. You are older than we are, and more experienced. We want guidance from you, moral leadership. On behalf of my fellow students, I beg you to give it to us." Schmoke was awarded a standing ovation as he left the hall, and order was restored on the Yale campus.
The Rhodes scholarship is one of academia's most prestigious awards. Rhodes scholars win the opportunity to study for two years at Oxford University; competition is intense for the few available positions. After graduating from Yale, Schmoke was chosen for the Rhodes scholarship by a committee from his home state of Maryland. He spent two years in England and traveled through Europe and Africa when he was out of class. Upon his return to America he enrolled in Harvard Law School, earning his law degree in 1978. Elsewhere Schmoke might have been an unknown, but many eyes in Baltimore were already on him, and expectations for his success in local politics were growing day by day.
A Successful Lawyer
Schmoke passed the Maryland bar and joined Piper & Marbury, one of Baltimore's most influential law firms. He did not work there long, however—he was recruited by the Carter Administration in Washington, D.C., to work in the Department of Transportation under Stuart Eizenstat. Washington Post writer Timothy Noah wrote: "It was the kind of job hordes of bright Ivy Leaguers would give their eye teeth for, but Schmoke was restless." Even though he met regularly with President Carter's cabinet members and even Carter himself, even though he had a high-paid and high-visibility position, Schmoke had other aspirations for himself. He wanted to be mayor of Baltimore. He returned to his hometown and threw himself into the political arena.
While in law school Schmoke had married Patricia Locks, a Baltimore native who was studying ophthalmology. Schmoke's father-in-law had been a member of the Maryland General Assembly and was full of advice for the young would-be candidate. Schmoke rejected most of the advice, centered as it was on the traditional step-by-step system that had long been part of Baltimore politics. Noah noted: "Times had changed, and the city's once-powerful [neighborhood] clubhouses were no longer the gateways to political power. Instead, Schmoke would work as a prosecutor for the U.S. attorney, involve himself in assorted civic activities, and begin scouting political opportunities. The opening came in 1982, in the race for Baltimore district attorney, a position known somewhat confusingly as 'state's attorney.'
In order to win as state's attorney, Schmoke had to defeat a white incumbent whose law-and-order rhetoric was very popular among the citizenry. Schmoke did not attack his opponent for racial insensitivity, as many of his predecessors had, but instead presented himself as an able young professional who would be more aggressive on drug prosecutions. He won by a landslide, carrying almost all of the black vote and a good many white votes besides. Schmoke served as state's attorney for four years—heading an office of 133 lawyers—and he sought the death penalty in several cases where narcotics policemen were shot by drug dealers. His years as a district attorney gave Schmoke an insider's awareness of the scope of the illegal narcotics industry, and that awareness has shaped his attitude toward illegal drugs to this day.
Strong Start as Mayor of Baltimore
It seemed unlikely that Schmoke—or anyone else—could have beaten William Donald Schaefer in a race for mayor of Baltimore. In the fifteen years that Schaefer ran Baltimore (1972-87), the city had experienced a transformation. Whole regions around the harbor that once housed rotting warehouses and abandoned homes bloomed into tourist attractions and upscale neighborhoods. Many Baltimoreans felt that Schaefer was solely responsible for the city's renaissance, and when the popular mayor moved on to become governor of Maryland, it was widely assumed that his hand-picked successor, Clarence "Du" Burns, would fill his shoes.
Schaefer was flamboyant and perennially optimistic. From the outset of his campaign Schmoke presented an entirely different picture. He was quiet, deliberate, and anything but optimistic about Baltimore's future. The civic improvements, he pointed out, were laudable but completely inadequate for solving the many problems still besetting the city. Schmoke called for immediate attention to the soaring teen pregnancy rate and the numbers of high school dropouts. Claiming that Baltimore had become "prettier but poorer," Schmoke struck a chord among those who had not benefited from the city's so-called recovery. At the age of thirty-eight he was elected mayor in a very close race.
Mayor Schmoke became controversial almost immediately. Only four months after he was elected he stunned the audience at the National Conference of Mayors by suggesting that at least some drug use should be made legal. Schmoke told the Washington Post: "I started to think, maybe we ought to consider this drug problem a public health problem rather than a criminal justice problem." Schmoke took bold and innovative stands on other issues as well. Decrying the poor performance of the city's public schools, he instituted the privatization of several schools and introduced private school curriculum in other schools—over the objections of teachers and school administrators. Hoping to solve the problem of soaring crime rates in urban housing projects, Schmoke okayed the hiring of a Nation of Islam security force in one project. Within a short time, crime rates fell dramatically. "Right or wrong," the Post reporter noted, "it's hard not to give Schmoke points for political bravery."
Faced Difficulties of Running a Big City
Schmoke won reelection in 1991 with over 70 percent of the vote, and he won a third term in 1995. During his tenure in office, he was able to claim many successes. He promoted a citywide reading program, instituted a needle-exchange program among drug users, kept tax rates stable, and attracted a new football team, the Baltimore Ravens, to the city. Though he was never a charismatic, inspirational leader, Schmoke also maintained his personal popularity in the city. Chi Chi Sileo wrote in Insight on the News: "He shies from the media, insulates himself against special-interest influences, has a background free of either flash or scandal and lives quietly in his hometown with his wife and two children. The biggest complaint people have about Schmoke is that he's boring—and even his critics agree that he is likable and honest."
By the end of his third term, however, neither his real accomplishments nor his personal popularity could mask the fact that Baltimore remained plagued by crime, poverty, and illiteracy—the very problems Schmoke had hoped to address. Critics charged that Schmoke had delegated power over important programs to poor administrators, that he stuck with failing programs for too long, and that he lacked the charisma to motivate people to pursue real change. Others accused Schmoke of resorting to racial politics when the difficulties of improving the city proved insurmountable. More charitable analysts believe that Schmoke should not take the blame for the problems of urban decay that continue to plague many formerly industrial American cities. The Washington Post's Timothy Noah wrote: "Even with the best of intentions and a long-term strategy for change, success can be maddeningly elusive. Tough urban problems do not easily yield to even the most innovative solutions.…" By 1998 Schmoke had evidently come to the same conclusion, for he announced at that time that he would not seek a fourth term in office.
After leaving office as the mayor of Baltimore in 1999 Schmoke became a partner in the Baltimore Office of the international law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. With his extensive network of contacts Schmoke was a valuable addition to the firm, and he also was asked to serve on the board of directors of several major companies, including the insurance company Baltimore Life and the finance firm Legg Mason. In 2002 Schmoke left the law firm to take the position of Dean of the Howard University School of Law. Howard University president H. Patrick Swygert announced in a university press release: "We are extremely fortunate to have someone with the depth of his intellect and the breadth of his talents and experiences." Whether the man once hailed as the next great black politician will return to the public arena or will use his immense talents to train the next generation of African-American leaders is a question that remains open.
Black Issues in Higher Education, November 7, 2002.
Economist, September 10, 1994, p. A27-28.
Insight on the News, November 28, 1994.
Jet, October 18, 1993, p. 13; November 27, 1995, p. 8; December 21, 1998.
New Republic, January 29, 1996; August 10, 1998.
Phi Delta Kappan, November 1995.
Washington Post, August 25, 1985; September 16, 1987; December 8, 1987; December 20, 1988; May 27, 1990.
"Kurt L. Schmoke Named New Dean of Howard University School of Law," School of Law, Howard University, www.law.howard.edu/publicaffairs/stories/newlawdean.htm (September 1, 2004).
—Mark Kram and
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