Kurt Schmoke won’t stay put. Take one look at Baltimore’s first elected black Mayor, and you think you’ve got him figured. Must be one of those button-down managerial types, the kind who have replaced the old-style buccaneering pols in a lot of city halls. He’s got the academic background (Yale, Oxford and Harvard Law). He’s got the thoughtful manner. He’s even got the red suspenders.
But just when you have him pegged—prudent yuppie—the image shifts. This is also the man who dropped a bombshell at the 1988 meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. That was where Schmoke proposed that Americans debate the possibility of decriminalizing drugs. Saying we are losing the war on drugs, he reasoned that decriminalization would render trafficking unprofitable, reduce drug-related crime and let funds be diverted from law enforcement to drug education and treatment. “I propose that the war on drugs be led by the Surgeon General,” he said. “Not the Attorney General.”
Overnight, the popular first-term Mayor, who could have slid by on the plaudits for his success at building low-income housing and improving public schools, made himself the target of national outrage. He laughs: “I got a lot of mail from people who wanted me to go down to the train station and be under the next train.” The surprising proposal—a former prosecutor, Schmoke pressed charges against thousands of drug defendants—also got howls of rejection from Washington and an unnerving question that daughter Kathy, 10, brought home from school: “Are you really in favor of taking drugs?”
While the merits of legalization are still debatable, they are much more debated since Schmoke had the courage to break the ice. After a decade when few politicians ventured a word in public before consulting their pollsters, his combination of managerial competence and audacity may even pay with voters. His approval rating is solid, and his mail is increasingly supportive. Political odds-makers are saying that Schmoke, 40, is a good bet for higher office in the ’90s. Like we told you—this guy won’t stay put.