The party is rocking when Mayor Kurt Schmoke arrives at state Sen. Thomas Bromwell's "Jamaica-Me-Crazy" fund-raiser near Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Drinks flow freely, and business suits and high heels have mostly given way to shorts, sandals and much-too-loud floral print shirts.

A slight breeze blows through the palm trees, and hundreds of partying feet scrape sand across the wooden deck. The scent of fist-size prawns and jerk chicken wafts--along with reggae music--through the late-afternoon haze.

Schmoke, 49, is dressed in gray suit pants, starched white shirt, blue-checked tie and suspenders. His shirt sleeves are folded at the elbow into crisp squares.

Friends, colleagues and constituents cue up for face time, some discussing business and others wishing Schmoke well as he prepares for his new life.

After nearly 16 years in elected office, Schmoke is walking away. His good looks, Ivy League credentials and even demeanor propelled him to one of the most visible political posts on the East Coast. But as he leaves the job, it's difficult not to notice--even when he's in full business attire--how at ease he is now.

"How does it feel?" asks former state senator John Pica, who traded public office to become a lobbyist for Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

With an aw-shucks shrug of the shoulders, Schmoke flashes Pica a knowing look, smiles broadly and says, "You know what it's like."

Ah, to be free . . . of the entrenched ills of a city whose vital statistics top too many of the wrong lists. Drugs. Violence. Sexually transmitted diseases. Illiteracy. Teen pregnancy.

Schmoke, the wonder boy, was expected to tackle those problems and bridge the longstanding racial divide between blacks and whites. The former high school and college athlete would rip off his suit to reveal Superman's cape and rescue Baltimore from certain death. Afterward, he would surely become a United States senator, governor or maybe a Cabinet member.

Certainly, Baltimore rarely left the national radar screen with Schmoke, a certified Friend of Bill, at the helm. But his critics say the mayor never lived up to his billing. He was too lackadaisical, too contemplative and too slow to make decisions. And, they contend, too often holed up at Baltimore's ornate City Hall, far removed from "the people."

Soon, it will be someone else's job to save the city. In December, Schmoke heads to the international law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering.

He will miss being mayor. He's also relieved.

"He's disgustingly happy," says his buddy and political cohort, Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D). "I call him 'The Mile Smile.' When the guy smiles now, it wraps about his whole head. He's clearly comfortable now. He's easier going and not burdened by the difficulties that await his successor. He's a guy that is satisfied that he gave it everything he could."

A Star Was Born

The frenzy of graduation day is spreading over Baltimore City College High School, one of the crown jewels in the city's ailing public school system.

Mothers and fathers and grandparents proudly tote balloons that say "Congratulations" and "Class of 1999." Early arrivers have claimed prime viewing and picture-taking spots on the football field and in the bleachers. Most are dressed in their Sunday best, others in grease-stained shirts bearing their first names.

Schmoke arrives with his security detail in his blue Ford Expedition with "MAYOR 1" plates just before ceremonies begin. Soon he is in a line of dignitaries, marching to a stage in the center of the football field. This is where the legend began.

City College, once predominantly white, is Schmoke's alma mater. A 1967 graduate, Schmoke was the star quarterback who led his team to an undefeated season and league championship his junior year. He was the first black person elected student body president, winning by the largest percentage in history at the time. Then, as now, his style was quiet, confident and endearing.

"Quite cooperative, very coachable," says Joe Brune, Schmoke's English teacher and football coach at City College. "He learned things quickly. He was never any behavioral problem. He had confidence in himself. Other players respected him. He was a leader."

Schmoke went on to do undergraduate work at Yale, to Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar and then to law school at Harvard University. After stints in the Carter White House and as an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore, Schmoke was elected in 1982 as state's attorney, or the city's chief prosecutor. Then, five years later, he became the first black to be elected mayor of Baltimore. That's the way things worked: What he wanted, he got.

"Of all the things that I have set my heart on and have worked very, very hard to achieve, I don't recall failing," he told an interviewer in 1990.

Until he became mayor.

At the City College graduation, Schmoke's trademark smile is easily discernible even from the bleacher seats as he passes out diplomas to graduates. But these schools have provided little to smile about. He increased school funding and tirelessly promoted literacy. President Bush awarded the city a national literacy award for Schmoke's effort to make Baltimore "The City That Reads." Still, the harsh reality is that the school system, by most standards, is failing. Half the students drop out before graduation, and standardized test scores are the worst in the state.

Two years ago, over the objections of his closest advisers, Schmoke ceded primary authority for the public schools to a state-appointed panel in exchange for $254 million in state aid. The schools needed the money and Schmoke refused to raise taxes for fear of encouraging more residents to leave for the suburbs.

"What I had hoped was that by the time I walked out of office, excellence in public schools was going to be the rule, not the exception," Schmoke says during an interview in his office, a pained look on his face. "And clearly we haven't achieved that goal."

A liberal Democrat, Schmoke now embraces a view most often espoused by conservative Republicans: Public schools are doomed without increased competition, including vouchers, charter schools and scholarships to private schools.

"If we operated from the principle that no parent should be forced to send their children to a poorly performing school, that means that bad schools would go out of business if they continue to do badly," Schmoke says, "that people would lose their jobs, not just principals, and that parents could have a real choice."

In 1992, Schmoke tried to give parents of nine of the city's poorest performing schools just such a choice when he turned them over to a private firm, Education Alternatives Inc. It was one of the nation's most closely watched privatization experiments, but it was terminated in 1995 after meager improvements, and after city officials said the experiment was too costly.

Its demise was a political setback for Schmoke, who had angered the two teachers unions, a core constituency that opposed the idea. If this dream of increased competition in public education is to become a reality in Baltimore, it won't be on Schmoke's watch.

Days in the Sun

The ship is coming in after a $7.5 million overhaul, and Schmoke joins thousands of onlookers cheering the return to Baltimore's Inner Harbor of the USS Constellation, built in 1854, the last Navy ship powered solely by sail.

For three years, the vaunted vessel that once intercepted slave ships on the African coast was in dry dock near Fort McHenry, just across the harbor, for repairs. Today it's returning to its Inner Harbor berth.

With bright banners and flags whipping in the wind, Baltimore was once again strutting for the state and national dignitaries who stopped by to visit. The Inner Harbor is the living room Baltimore reserves for special occasions. ESPN broadcasts live from the ESPN Zone restaurant here during Monday night NFL football games. The television series "Homicide: Life on the Street" was filmed near here before being canceled. But the sustained revival downtown masks the reality that many Baltimore neighborhoods are still suffering.

This is the biggest knock against Schmoke's tenure, as it was with former mayor William Donald Schaefer: Too much time was spent sprucing up the harbor at the expense of the communities that needed help the most.

"He had no vision for the city beyond the Inner Harbor," says the Rev. Douglas Miles, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, representing 200 congregations in Baltimore. "The number of vacant houses multiplied, employment left the city and the mass exodus out of this city continued.

"It was expected that Mayor Schmoke would at last focus attention on the African American community and particularly poor people. Instead, we got more of the same-old, same-old: multimillion-dollar investments in the Inner Harbor."

Schmoke dismisses this assessment, pointing out that the city devoted much more money to tearing down dilapidated high-rise public housing, preserving parks and replacing squalor with livable communities.

"It's just not as visible as what's happening on the harbor," Schmoke says, making no apologies for continuing to build up downtown. After all, the businesses at the harbor provide a much-needed tax base.

Critics acknowledge that what happened in Baltimore--the exodus to the suburbs, the mushrooming social ills, the loss of manufacturing jobs--occurred in cities across America. But like the winning football quarterback who gets all the accolades, Schmoke, in the minds of many, also bears the blame for not stopping the decay from spreading within his city.

"The accepted wisdom around here is that he is an honorable, decent, thoughtful man in a very tough situation," says Donald F. Norris, professor of policy sciences at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The schools are poor, the murder rate remains disturbingly high and half the Marylanders below the poverty line live in Baltimore.

"To be able to manage in the face of that is pretty extraordinary," says Norris. "But the typical criticism is that he has not been very effective."

Schmoke's top political strategist, Larry Gibson, sees things differently. The mayor, Gibson says, attracted jobs, hired more police, improved literacy and is widely viewed as an effective money manager. Schmoke, he says, ran a "noncorrupt, clean" government, one in which civility ruled the day.

"The city is a better place," Gibson says. "It's a more livable place."

As might be expected, Schmoke's wife, Patricia, adamantly defends her husband's tenure. But she brings the added perspective of coming from a family that has owned a funeral home here--and been a middle-class fixture--for five generations.

"People are looking for some sort of savior, a messiah who is going to come and by their very presence is going to change the city around them," says Patricia Schmoke. "But it's an ongoing problem and it takes all of us working together. People always say, 'Why don't they do this?' or 'Why don't they do that?' We are the 'they.' The people that are screaming the loudest are those that are doing the least."

Eclipsed Hopes

After his first mayoral win in 1987, Schmoke regularly rubbed shoulders with presidents and international figures. But joining their ranks would prove considerably more difficult. With the notable exception of Schaefer, it's been difficult for big-city mayors anywhere to wrestle with entrenched problems and then successfully run for higher office.

Schmoke didn't make it easy on himself, though. High on the list was his decision in 1988 to call for treatment rather than prosecution of drug addicts. Schmoke says he felt it needed to be discussed to address the problems that cities like Baltimore were facing. But the move effectively killed his chances to be confirmed for a Cabinet position, especially after Republicans ousted Democrats from control of Congress.

And while he toyed with running for governor, the year he seriously thought about the race, in 1994, another Baltimorean, Lt. Gov. Mickey Steinberg, was the frontrunner. And Parris N. Glendening, then Prince George's County executive, had a sizable fund-raising war chest and ideas similar to Schmoke's.

As for the U.S. Senate, Democratic stalwarts Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski have had a lock on Maryland's two seats during Schmoke's political career. Schmoke considered running but decided against a challenge.

Says Patricia Schmoke: "Why would he run against Sarbanes or Mikulski?"--both of whom share her husband's political outlook. "It doesn't make sense, just for political ambition, to run."

Still, Schmoke won't rule out another run for public office. Others, however, say his moment has passed.

For many Maryland political insiders, the last bit of mystique surrounding Schmoke was lost when the mayor tried to use his influence last summer to unseat Glendening, who was running for reelection as governor. Glendening had refused to allow slot machines at racetracks, an idea Schmoke said would provide a long-term solution to school funding problems. So Schmoke backed then-Harford County Executive Eileen Rehrmann in the Democratic primary. Her candidacy flopped, and with it, some contend, any pretense that Schmoke could transfer his popularity to others.

After the Rehrmann endorsement, "he looked more normal and not to fit the caliber of a person you want to be United States senator," says Del. Howard P. Rawlings, one of the city's most powerful advocates in Annapolis as the chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

But the insiders' view of Schmoke does not appear to have affected his public persona. When he walks the streets, people blow their horns, yell out of car windows and scramble for pictures and autographs.

His fame is not just local. Schmoke hailed a cab in Manhattan recently only to have the Ghanaian cabby ask, "Are you the mayor of Baltimore?" A week earlier, Schmoke had led an American delegation to Ghana. The driver had seen him on television. "It's amazing what CNN does," says Schmoke.

His demeanor and facial expressions change little regardless of the subject that each person wants to discuss. Schmoke takes it all in stride. During a brief walk from the Inner Harbor to City Hall recently, he cordially shakes hands, poses for pictures and finds a graceful exit.

That's precisely what friends and foes alike say Schmoke is doing now, leaving with grace when he would be a strong candidate to win another four-year term. Until December, Schmoke says he'll continue to keep a heavy schedule of meetings and public appearances. After all, he is still the mayor.

"I'm a lame duck," he says. "Not a dead duck."