'Aloof' mayor turns voters colour-blind

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It is a close, sticky evening in early September and Nancy McCray is sitting on her down-at-heel porch here, seeking a breath of cool air and ruminating on the violence that plagues the neighbourhood she has lived in for 40 years. ''It just gets worse,'' she sighs. ''Every year, there's more killing, more robbing. You got to lock yourself in when you're at home; it's worse than being in jail.''

Sentiments which are to be heard in any crime-plagued American inner city these days. Here, though, they reflect a mood which could produce the politically unthinkable: that for the first time ever, a predominantly black city will throw out its black mayor and elect a white. According to the polls, the once impregnable lead of Kurt Schmoke over his challenger, Mary Pat Clarke, is only 5 percentage points, and falling. The arithmetic is simple: Baltimore's electorate is roughly 60 per cent black, 40 per cent white. To win tomorrow's Democratic primary, Mrs Clarke must recapture white voters who previously backed Mr Schmoke (which she is doing) and persuade 15 or 20 per cent of black voters to defect. She seems close to doing that too. And since 85 per cent of Baltimore's registered voters are Democrats, winning the primary guarantees victory in the election in November.

When he took office eight years ago, Mr Schmoke seemed purpose-built to save Baltimore. He was a living showcase for his city, a home-town boy who became a college football star, a Yale graduate and Rhodes scholar who epitomised a new generation of black mayors, moderate "technocrats" who have eschewed the politics of race. Only if blacks and whites worked together, Mr Schmoke argued, could the big cities be restored to health.

And the ailments of Baltimore, with 700,000 inhabitants the 14th biggest of them, are little different from the rest. Venture a few blocks beyond the glittering downtown, with its revamped Inner Harbour and stunning Orioles baseball park, and you enter the other Baltimore, a weary old Rust Belt town of seedy streets, boarded-up tenement blocks, rampant crime and a crack cocaine epidemic. Baltimore's murder rate, at one a day, now surpasses Washington's. In the eight years Mr Schmoke has been mayor, 50,000 jobs have vanished. Middle-class flight to Maryland suburbia has eaten into the tax base and the city's self-confidence. Nothing Mr Schmoke could do has halted the decline.

Last month the Baltimore Sun, which supported him in 1987 and 1991, endorsed Mrs Clarke, calling the mayor ''a sad disappointment... even to many of his closest supporters''. Too often he comes across as cool and cerebral, a star on the national circuit much in evidence at the White House and smart dinners at the British embassy, but out of contact with the problems of his city. The portrayal may be unfair, but not a few blacks are buying it. ''I'm not voting for him again, he's just a bunch of talk,'' said a woman round the corner from Nancy McCray.

And Mrs Clarke senses her moment. Her liberal policies may be indistinguishable from Mr Schmoke's; not so her style. Bustling around grimy neighbourhoods in a bright red jacket and her trademark white sneakers, she contrasts the ''customer friendly, nuts-and-bolts'' administration she promises with the aloof incumbent. ''Out of touch, out of touch,'' she murmurs like a mantra.

Decades of community activism and eight years as head of the city council have made her well known in Baltimore. ''She has done as good a job as any white person here could do to win voters' support,'' notes Frederick Charleston, a black lawyer. ''Many people would have a difficult time not voting for her just because she is not black.'' Sentiments which Mrs McCray echoes from her porch: ''It's not colour which matters, but whether you can do the job of mayor.''

Narrowly, the odds remain that Mr Schmoke will scrape through to a third four-year term. Should Mrs Clarke win, however, the social and political scientists who descend on Baltimore could outnumber the fans who watched Cal Ripken, the Orioles' shortstop, play his 2,131st consecutive game last week and earn his place in baseball history.