Even if you've been groomed for success since childhood. Even if you studied at Harvard, Oxford and Yale. Even if you're as smart and poised as Baltimore's Kurt Schmoke, you've still got one of the planet's most thankless jobs

In a high-ceilinged conference room at Baltimore's City Hall, Mayor Kurt Schmoke is thinking. Hunched in blue shirt-sleeves and paisley suspenders over a long table, he rubs the back of his hand against his mouth as he stares into a pile of budget documents. Half a dozen aides and city employees are seated around the table and in chairs lined up against the wall, but for a moment he seems unaware of their existence. Then the trance breaks and he looks up at a woman sitting several yards down the table. "Unless something dramatic occurs," he tells her, "you may have to prepare to place these positions on a part-time basis."

The woman manages one of several municipal agencies facing cutbacks in a city that, despite its recent transformation into a waterfront tourist attraction, is in unmistakable economic decline. She understands that she may have to reduce the number of full-time employees, but she is not happy. What will she tell her office, she asks. "Just tell them the jury's still out," answers Schmoke. As he says this, he flashes a smile that can only be called dazzling. Improbably wide and big-toothed, it radiates athletic confidence, bottomless goodwill . . . but also, as one looks into his eyes, a certain remoteness. As his deep-socketed gaze recedes to a watery twinkle, it becomes clear that the mayor's interest in this problem has vanished. The smile says: I understand things are tough, but I have done all I can do. It is a mask he has put on in order to say -- as pleasantly as is humanly possible -- enough!

Being mayor of a major northeastern city in the last decade of the 20th century means constantly having to say Enough! The persistence of urban poverty and the continuing migration of middle-class families to the suburbs leave city governments struggling harder than ever to solve overwhelming problems with dwindling tax dollars -- and, thanks to Reagan-era cutbacks, dwindling federal aid. Every day brings a new headache. The stench of urine rises from the elevators in the Lafayette Court housing project. Enough! Textbooks that ought to be in classrooms are instead piled high in a city warehouse. Enough! An undercover cop is gunned down by a drug dealer in a bungled bust. Enough! Enough!

A generation ago, the challenge of saving the cities attracted many of the nation's best minds, and mayors like New York's John Lindsay and Boston's Kevin White were seen as potential candidates for president and vice president. But today, "urban studies" is an academic backwater, and despite the example of William Donald Schaefer -- an exception to this rule as to many others -- big-city mayors have had trouble moving on to higher office. "It's a frustrating role," says Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a former Baltimore city councilman, "which is why I never really entertained the idea of running for mayor." Cities like Baltimore may thrive as centers of commerce and culture, but as political entities they are losing ground to state government, the only level of government with the financial resources to even think about tackling tough urban problems. What can a mayor really do?

The mayor's office is a particularly unpromising jumping-off point for an ambitious young black politician, because urban problems are so conspicuously intertwined with issues of race. Yet here is Kurt Schmoke, a 40-year-old black man who entered the Baltimore public schools the year they were integrated and departed them a Yale-bound football hero; who left Yale for a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, then Harvard Law, then the Carter White House; and who returned to Baltimore to win a job as Baltimore state's attorney, and, in 1987, Baltimore's first elected black mayor.

Not long after he became mayor, Newsweek described Kurt Schmoke as "a younger black version of Michael Dukakis." Subsequent events give that characterization an inadvertent tinge of libel, but if one overlooks the presidential election and the collapse of the Massachusetts economy -- admittedly, not an easy thing to do -- it isn't far off. Temperamentally, Schmoke is cool and analytic, friendly but guarded, bristling with ideas but inclined to caution. And, it must be said, somewhat tweedy. Schmoke recently joined the Yale Corporation (i.e., became a trustee), and when Britain's Prince Charles held a lunch last year in Washington for 17 "contemporaries," Schmoke was there.

Among black politicians, Schmoke is the most intriguing representative of a new, pragmatic generation -- a group that includes, among others, Rep. Mike Espy of Mississippi and Mayor Michael White of Cleveland. The beneficiaries of a civil rights movement they were too young to participate in, these politicians, though objects of black pride, are less interested in racial solidarity than in charting their own paths. Schmoke did not support Jesse Jackson's presidential bid in 1988. He favors the death penalty, despite the argument that it is more likely to be applied to blacks than whites. He publicly denied seeing any evidence of a conspiracy to undermine black officials when Marion Barry was arrested for alleged possession of crack cocaine.

Throughout his life, Schmoke has been groomed for success by a series of establishment mentors, both black and white. More than a few Baltimoreans assume Schmoke will someday be a Maryland senator or governor. But before he gets there he must negotiate the hurdles of mayoral politics. Schmoke has promised to improve the city's dismal education system, making Baltimore "the city that reads," a pledge unlikely to be fulfilled in the near term. He has also raised the controversial question of whether drug use ought to be legalized -- or "decriminalized," as he prefers to say. Schmoke's stance, which won instant nationwide media attention (see box, Page 30), is perhaps best understood as a well-researched and carefully articulated cry of Enough!

In his lifelong quest to achieve, Schmoke has finally landed a job in which achievement -- real achievement in solving problems like illiteracy and drug violence -- couldn't be more elusive. The question remains: Why did he choose such a difficult path?

"I really wanted to be the mayor," Schmoke answers. "This is the job in politics that I've been interested in for many years, and I thought it was a job that I could do well . . . I knew that most of the time mayors don't go to higher office. I mean, there are exceptions, and there may be more and more exceptions to that. But generally in American politics, mayors don't move on to higher office. I was aware of that."

As he says this, one can't help wondering whether this apparently humble man is operating on what must by now seem a perfectly reasonable assumption: If anyone is exceptional, it is Kurt Schmoke.

THE CITY HALL CEREMONIAL ROOM IS RESERVED FOR formal occasions such as the signing of proclamations and interviews with the press. Plush red draperies frame the windows, crystal chandeliers drip from the ceiling, and long mirrors line walls of beige and green marble. Today, however, the mayor is having trouble living up to the dignity of the setting. The apparent reason is a question I've asked about his family background. A pained smirk appears on his face, and an embarrassed giggle struggles to break free.

He asks if I've ever seen the Steve Martin movie "The Jerk."

"I always think about it when people start talking about their lives," Schmoke says. "The opening line, when Steve Martin is talking about, 'I was born a poor Negro in Mississippi.' " At the thought of this tableau -- a white man placed incongruously into a black sharecropping family -- he succumbs to helpless laughter.

I wait for him to recover, then start again. He was born --

"I was not born poor." The tone is amusement mingled with polite exasperation. Enough!

West Baltimore working class is more like it. Murray Schmoke was a civilian chemist at the Army's Edgewood Arsenal, and his wife, Irene, worked at the Social Security Administration as a clerk-typist. Both had college degrees, and from the start they made clear to their only child that they expected him to go away to college -- preferably to Morehouse, the prestigious black college in Atlanta from which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (and Murray) had graduated. By the time he was 5, Kurt was telling people he would someday be mayor of Baltimore, but his mother emphasizes that his was a normal childhood. "Except in sports, I never thought of him having any really outstanding qualities," she says. "I mean, you know, we weren't getting A's or anything like that. B's, yeah, but no A's."

Young Kurt may not have been a scholar, but adults who watched him grow were struck by his unfailing thoughtfulness and self-possession. The Rev. Marion Bascom, pastor of the Douglas Memorial Community Church, where the Schmokes were active members, remembers "a quiet, unassuming boy, but always a boy whom you felt had great depth of mind and spirit." When Kurt was 12, his parents worried about how to tell him they were getting a divorce. When they finally broke the news, Kurt replied that he thought that would be best. "I think he handled it better than we did," says Irene.

Among those most struck by Schmoke's youthful poise was Robert Hammerman, a white Baltimore city judge. Today, in the outer office of the judge's circuit court chambers, there is a framed photograph of a black- robed Hammerman swearing in Kurt Schmoke as mayor. The photograph is inscribed, "To Bob: Thanks for everything. Kurt."

For more than 40 years, Hammerman has devoted his spare time to running a club for teenage boys from all over Baltimore, called the Lancers. Three out of four Fridays a month, the Lancers gather at a local school to play team sports, hear inspirational speeches from local dignitaries or get a dose of high culture. The judge plays mentor to the boys, suggesting books and magazine articles to read and offering advice on getting into college. Hammerman says that when Kurt Schmoke, age 14, first showed up at a Lancers meeting, "I felt immediately upon meeting him that here is a boy of tremendous leadership potential." Schmoke was well on his way to football and lacrosse stardom at Baltimore City College, a citywide public high school. ("He had good athletic skills, plus he was smart and did what he was told," recalls coach George Young, now general manager of the New York Giants. "He was very coachable.") Hammerman -- himself a City College alumnus whose teenage dreams of football glory had been dashed by a severe case of asthma -- cheered Schmoke on. But he also encouraged him to aim higher.

The two started meeting for lunch every other month at the Hopkins Club. Seated in a Windsor chair under a barrel-vaulted ceiling, pink napkin in his lap, Schmoke would listen as Judge Hammerman talked about current events -- the Vietnam War, the progress of the civil rights movement, the ups and downs of Baltimore city politics -- and also about Schmoke's future. At one lunch, Hammerman encouraged his protege to run for school president. By this time, Schmoke was varsity quarterback; coach Young advised him against taking on the extra responsibility. But Schmoke followed Hammerman's advice, and won -- the first black to do so at the majority-white school. At another lunch, Hammerman explained what a Rhodes scholarship was. "I had heard about it," recalls Schmoke, "but didn't know what it was. He suggested that I go to college with a goal."

The judge began introducing Schmoke to various representatives of Baltimore's emerging legal and political establishment. Among them was Paul Sarbanes, now Maryland's senior senator, then a lawyer in Baltimore. Sarbanes, a Rhodes scholar, served on the state Rhodes committee that would later select Schmoke ("An easy choice," Sarbanes recalls); Kurt would also spend a summer interning in Sarbanes' congressional office. Two others Hammerman introduced Schmoke to were Joseph Howard, who became Baltimore's first black federal judge, and Robert Embry, who as city housing commissioner would subsequently oversee development of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Embry, who was starting a local Big Brother-type program, had asked Hammerman to send him some Lancers to help out. As Embry tells it, Hammerman promised him three, "one of whom will be the first black mayor of Baltimore."

By his senior year in high school, Schmoke was a minor Baltimore celebrity, renowned for leading an undefeated City College football squad to the state championship while serving as school president. A contemporary recalls that when Schmoke showed up in the stands at Johns Hopkins lacrosse games, heads of (mostly white) local high school and prep school spectators would turn. "Kurt's here," they would say. "There's Kurt Schmoke." When Schmoke was accepted at Yale -- he had long since discarded the idea of going to all-black Morehouse --

the news made the front page of the Baltimore Sun's sports section.

Schmoke accepted all this success with his usual poise. Hammerman recalls one Hopkins Club lunch at which Schmoke confided, "Everything I've wanted in my life I've gotten. I know life just isn't that way." Maybe not for most people. But to this day Schmoke has difficulty citing instances in which he failed to get what he wanted. "Of the things that I have really set my heart on," he says, "and have worked very, very hard to achieve, I don't recall failing." As for minor failures, Schmoke says, these were "mostly school related," and, one suspects, minor indeed.

Schmoke remained a good-though-not-brilliant student at Yale ("Here again, not A grades," says his ever-vigilant mother), but he continued to distinguish himself as an athlete and especially as a student leader, serving as president of the black student association and as class secretary (in effect, president) of his senior class. As political tensions heated up in the late '60s and early '70s, Schmoke's trademark calm won respect -- especially from his elders. He became close to Yale President Kingman Brewster and persuaded Brewster to provide university funds for a community day care center in New Haven. "I really admired him a great deal," Schmoke says of Brewster. "I admired his diplomatic skills. He was a good problem solver." Schmoke thought less highly of Black Panther Huey Newton when Newton came to Yale to debate a group of black students. The debate grew "pretty heated," Schmoke recalls, "because I didn't really believe in Newton's philosophy." (Schmoke now regrets his stridency with Newton. "I was real obnoxious," he says. "I blew a very good opportunity to discuss issues of some importance.")

Schmoke's most celebrated moment at Yale came in the spring of 1970, when the New Haven murder trial of Newton's fellow Black Panther, Bobby Seale, threatened to cause campus riots. While students bearing huge red STRIKE signs massed outside, the faculty assembled in Sprague Hall. The mood was grim. Professors talked apocalyptically of Yale's imminent destruction. Kingman Brewster rose to declare himself "skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States," a now-famous remark probably inspired less by radical chic than by the urgent need to quiet an angry mob. Groping for a resolution to the crisis, the faculty agreed to hear from a student representative.

If Kurt Schmoke's career ever acquires the aura of political legend, his equivalent of PT-109 -- the incident in which his public character is seen to reveal itself for the first time -- will likely be his speech before the Yale faculty. Serendipitously, John Hersey, who publicized John Kennedy's war adventures in a famous 1944 article for the New Yorker, was also present as a Yale faculty member at Sprague Hall. In his 1970 book Letter to the Alumni, Hersey tells the story:

Kurt walked to the podium on the stage. What kind of abusive rhetoric would we hear? In a trembling voice, Kurt spoke only five or six brief sentences, to this effect: "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." Overcome by both the filial courtesy and the implacable challenge of these words, the entire faculty stood and applauded Kurt as he left . . .

In retrospect, there was considerably more filial courtesy than implacable challenge. Schmoke's speech made no accusations or demands -- indeed, took no position at all. Bob Chambers, Schmoke's residential college dean, says, "It was at that moment, I think, that he won his Rhodes scholarship."

STUART EIZENSTAT REMEMBERS A DAY IN 1978 WHEN a young black Rhodes scholar on his domestic policy staff came by his office to discuss something "personal." David Rubenstein, Eizenstat's deputy and a fellow Lancer, had the previous year recruited Schmoke to the Carter White House from Piper & Marbury, the blue-chip Baltimore law firm Schmoke had joined after graduating from Harvard Law School. Schmoke was working on minority set-aside programs for the Small Business Administration and the Department of Transportation. It was the kind of job hordes of bright Ivy Leaguers would give their eyeteeth for, but Schmoke was restless. In Rubenstein's view, the problem was that Schmoke was used to being the "center of attention."

What Schmoke came to tell Eizenstat was that he was leaving the White House. Eizenstat was stunned. "You meet with Cabinet officers, even the president of the United States," he said. "Don't you find the job interesting?"

"Of course."

"Then why leave?"

"I want to go back to Baltimore," said Schmoke, explaining that he wanted to get involved in local politics.

Eizenstat was still puzzled -- and not just because the White House was the center of his universe. To Eizenstat, Schmoke seemed "well-dressed, always polite, never overly assertive," more the policy wonk than the backslapper. That's the last I'll see of this kid, he told himself.

Eizenstat wasn't the only one surprised by Schmoke's political style: Schmoke's wife didn't understand it either. (While in law school, he had met and married Patricia Locks, who was studying to be an ophthalmologist. Actually, they had married twice: Eager to live together while Patricia finished up medical school in Florida, the two had secretly eloped so Kurt could be in accordance with a Harvard regulation that said only married students could complete course work at another law school and still receive a Harvard degree. Later, they had a church wedding. Kurt's mother didn't learn about the earlier civil ceremony until years later.)

Patricia Schmoke is a Baltimore native whose father had run for the Maryland House of Delegates, so she knew what you had to do if you wanted to make your way in Baltimore politics: join a neighborhood political club and start climbing the patronage ladder. When Kurt didn't join a club after leaving the White House, Patri- cia asked whether he'd changed his mind about politics. No, he answered. He was still pursuing it. But times had changed, and the city's once-powerful 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."

By 1982, Baltimore was a majority-black city, but surprisingly few blacks held electoral positions of much power, and none had ever won more than 50 percent of the vote in a citywide election. Part of the problem was a longstanding cultural divide between the impoverished black community in East Baltimore, where the clubhouses had ruled with an iron hand, and the more prosperous black neighborhoods in West Baltimore, where churches dominated. Even when divisions weren't geographic or economic, black voters tended to factionalize. For example, in the 1971 mayoral election that sent William Donald Schaefer to city hall, the black vote split between two black candidates, City Solicitor George Russell and State Sen. Clarence Mitchell III. Russell called Mitchell a "spoiler," Mitchell called Russell an "Uncle Tom," and whites ended up controlling city hall for 15 more years.

A beachhead had been established in 1970 when Milton Allen, a black, was elected as state's attorney. Four years later, however, Allen had lost to William Swisher, a white man with strong blue-collar and ethnic support. Swisher had won by hitting the law-and-order theme hard -- and appealing, some said, to white racism. One TV ad of Swisher's had shown lights flashing and sirens blaring while a voice-over described Baltimore as a "jungle."

Poring over the returns from Swisher's 1974 victory and 1978 reelection, Schmoke concluded that Swisher was vulnerable. Nationwide, black voter turnout was high; large numbers had gone to the polls to vote against Ronald Reagan in 1980. This gave Schmoke confidence that he could unite East and West Baltimore blacks with the liberal whites of North and Northeast Baltimore to provide his margin of victory. Not everybody saw it this way. When Schmoke proposed the idea to Larry Gibson, a tough black po- litical operative who would become Schmoke's campaign manager and chief political adviser, Gibson initially advised against running. So did Judge Hammerman. But Schmoke says he doubted victory only once, when he took a drive through Swisher's white, working-class base of Highlandtown and compared it with Ashburton, the affluent black neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore where Schmoke and his wife live in a sprawling ranch house with swimming pool. "If you've seen my neighborhood, there are big houses separated by lawns, and maybe you've got four houses on a block," says Schmoke. "In Highlandtown, you had blocks and blocks of row houses where you would have maybe 20 houses a block. And I got a little nervous that maybe my numbers were just wrong." Surely Schmoke's electoral arithmetic was tangled up with anxiety about the ticklish issue of social class, but typically, he focused on the numbers. In any case, he says, the worry was gone the next day.

Four years earlier a black lawyer named Dwight Petit had unsuccessfully tried to unseat Swisher by making an issue of his attitudes toward blacks. "Kurt had a better sense of the times," says Rep. Kweisi Mfume, "and a better sense of the process of healing." Rather than attack Swisher for racial insensitivity, Schmoke stuck to the issues -- chief among them, ironically enough, the need for more aggressive drug prosecutions -- and presented himself as a candidate worthy of both black pride and white approval. "Mr. Schmoke is a go-getter and an achiever who has done everything he set out to do, and done it well," the Baltimore Sun noted with approval. Asked by the Baltimore City Paper to name his heroes, he cited his mother, his father, Kingman Brewster and Thurgood Marshall.

Schmoke won by a landslide. Five years later, he was mayor.

AS MAYOR, KURT SCHMOKE HAS ANenormous political problem: the act he has to follow.

Schmoke entered office virtually on the heels of the wildly popular Schaefer ("virtually" because for a year after Schaefer departed for Annapolis, the city was run by Clarence "Du" Burns, a Schaefer ally who became the first unelected black mayor of Baltimore; Schmoke beat Burns by 4 percentage points in 1987). During the 15 years Schaefer presided over Baltimore, the city's image was completely transformed. When Schaefer came into office in 1972, Baltimore was a potent symbol of industrial decline -- a steel town at a time when big steel was hitting the skids, a port city when trade was shifting to the South and the West. A song by Randy Newman titled, simply, "Baltimore" summed up the bleakest part of the picture:

Hooker on the corner

Waiting for a train,

Junkie lying on the sidewalk

Sleeping in the rain,

And they hide their faces

And they hide their eyes,

'Cause the city's dying

And they don't know why . . .

Schaefer's great triumph as mayor was to erase this loser image. With the redevelopment of downtown and the Inner Harbor, travel magazines suddenly started waxing poetic about Baltimore's cobblestoned charm. The tourism and convention business that resulted may not have been great enough to overcome Baltimore's underlying economic problems, but it was certainly enough to boost the city's flagging spirits and win Schaefer national recognition: Esquire magazine named him the best mayor in America. His subsequent promotion to governor seemed less the fulfillment of ordinary political ambition than an unexpected dividend of extraordinary popularity.

Practically everyone agrees that Schmoke lacks the public exuberance-bordering-on-exhibitionism that was Schaefer's style. To publicize the Baltimore aquarium, Schaefer donned a Gay Nineties swimsuit and dived into a seal tank. Schmoke's photo opportunities are more restrained -- for example, wearing a crossing-guard's vest to escort a 4-year-old kindergartner to school -- and therefore less memorable.

As a speaker, Schaefer has a crowd-pleasing gift for making every thought seem utterly spontaneous. His eyes will light up, his head will cock, and his index finger will point upward as if to say, "This is only occurring to me just now." Schmoke, by contrast, is an uncompelling speaker whose public utterances, while surely no more rehearsed, are nevertheless likely to seem so. For example, last winter Schmoke addressed a black church crowd celebrating the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Speaking in a soft, unmodulated voice about the need to "underscore the self-esteem and self-reliance of the African-American community," he drew respectful applause from an otherwise jubilant audience.

By the time he departed Baltimore, Schaefer was a hero to many of the city's blacks. He had remained (and still remains) in the same West Baltimore row house he grew up in, in a neighborhood that had become predominantly black, and in his last election for mayor beat his black opponent even in the overwhelmingly black precincts. Still, speculation that Schmoke would run for mayor had begun practically the day he assumed the office of state's attorney. Indeed, some political observers suggest that Schmoke's climbing popularity in the majority-black city helped persuade Schaefer to run for another office in 1986. (Schaefer declined to be interviewed for this article.)

What no one in Baltimore doubts is that Schaefer and Schmoke can't stand each other. Schmoke doesn't bother trying to deny the tensions. "It's just clear to me that there is a feeling on his part that he doesn't like me," Schmoke says. "I just do business knowing that, in politics, as in other things in life, people that you do business with don't necessarily have to like you on a personal level." How does this affect political life in the state? Schmoke insists that "administration to administration" the Baltimore mayor and the Maryland governor have a good working relationship, but apparently that doesn't include personal meetings be- tween the two. Schmoke says he has repeatedly tried to arrange a one-on-one meeting with Schaefer, but never succeeded -- not as state's attorney, and not as mayor.

Trying to figure out the origin of this feud is the great parlor game of Baltimore politics. Some say it results from Schmoke's alliance with campaign manager and political adviser Larry Gibson, who over the years has supported a number of black candidates against Schaefer and Schaefer allies. Schmoke says it began when Mayor Schaefer was conspicuously absent at Schmoke's swearing-in as state's attorney, an event attended by the governor and other important politicians from around the state because of its significance to the black community. Typ- ically, Schmoke denies Schaefer's ab- sence made him angry, "but it did send a pretty strong signal that there was a problem."

According to Bob Douglas, a former Schaefer press secretary, Schaefer says the trouble began when State's Attorney Schmoke acted discourteously at cabinet meetings. He says Schaefer also got mad when Schmoke took complaints about cuts in the state's attorney budget to the press rather than to Schaefer. Then there's the fact that Schmoke endorsed Schaefer's chief primary opponent, Attorney General Steve Sachs, in the 1986 gubernatorial race. And after becoming mayor, Schmoke made some ill-advised criticisms of Schaefer's drug policies at a highly publicized drug conference sponsored by Schaefer. (Today Schmoke praises Schaefer, an opponent of decriminalization, for directing more state money toward rehabilitation.)

It seems likely that the ultimate source of this mutual dislike is the vast cultural gulf between the two men. Surely there are class tensions. "It's Yale and Harvard vs. University of Baltimore," says one political observer. Schmoke's rejection of old-style clubhouse politics may also play a role. Schaefer climbed up the ranks as a clubhouse pol, putting in 16 years on the City Council before attempting a run for mayor, and 15 years as mayor before attempting a run for governor. Schmoke, by contrast, came up via Piper & Marbury and the White House -- impressive milieus in which to display one's talents but outside the realm of city politics. Whether in spite of these achievements or because of them, Don Schaefer is one of the few powerful men Kurt Schmoke has encountered whom he hasn't been able to win over.

CERTAINLY THE TWO POLITICIANS' approach to governing couldn't be more different. Where Schaefer drew inspiration by prowling the streets for potholes he could complain about in "do it now" action memos, Schmoke draws inspiration from a consultant's report. The report is titled "Baltimore 2000," and Schmoke says he uses it as "a guide to the major issues that need to be addressed."

It pays to be wary of politicians who get turned on by foundation studies. The blooming, buzzing confusion of city politics can hardly be divined by scrutinizing charts and graphs. On the other hand, "Baltimore 2000" lays out in cold type a few hard truths that the boosterish Schaefer seemed reluctant to acknowledge. The city has lost almost a fifth of its population over the last quarter-century. Forty-two percent of its adult citizens under 65 are out of work, partly because Baltimore has lost nearly half its manufacturing jobs since 1970. Thanks to a dwindling capital base, property taxes are sky high -- twice the rate in Washington, D.C. Since 1969, public school enrollment has dropped by almost half, and only 20 percent of all students are now white. Most ominous of all, 76 percent of all black births are to unmarried women -- a higher proportion than in any other major U.S. city. Baltimore is the teenage pregnancy capital of America.

As these problems have mounted, the flow of federal money to Baltimore has gradually dwindled, making the city increasingly dependent on the state. "It's a welfare colony," says Frank DiFilippo, who served as press secretary to Gov. Marvin Mandel. Maryland Senate Pres- ident Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. last December went further, calling the city a "{expletive} ghetto" and "war zone."

"Baltimore 2000" acknowledges the benefit of the Inner Harbor renovation and other downtown redevelopment, but its conclusion, as summarized by Schmoke, is that Baltimore is "prettier but poorer." After entering the mayor's office, Schmoke took steps to change that. Touting the idea of "regionalism," Schmoke started promoting joint job training and other cooperative ventures between the city and its surrounding suburban counties as a money-saving device. (Schmoke is envious of cities like Indianapolis that can tax residents of surround- ing suburbs, but such an arrangement is all but blocked by Maryland's Constitution.) He joined forces with a Saul Alinsky-inspired community-organizing group called Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development and provided the government backing necessary to create a thousand new homeowners a year. Last year Schmoke and BUILD created 1,473. To combat teenage pregnancy, Patricia Schmoke began speaking in public to groups of teenage girls. (Before going on to college and medical school, she herself had been an unwed teenage mother. Kurt adopted her son.) Most important, Schmoke pledged to improve the city's dismally bad schools, where Schaefer had despaired of achieving reform. He raised teachers' salaries and increased the city's contribution to education by 47 percent. And city benches that had previously borne the name of William Donald Schaefer -- a flourish Schaefer introduced after visiting Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago -- were painted over with the words READING ZONE and BALTIMORE: THE CITY THAT READS.

Schmoke made his biggest splash, however, when he announced to a startled audience at the National Conference of Mayors in Washington that he believed the time had come to consider making at least some drug use legal. Schmoke had been placed on a conference committee to study the problem of AIDS, and had been considering the virtues of "needle exchange" programs in which cities provided sterile syringes to drug addicts. This necessarily required granting addicts immunity from prosecution. If immunity could be granted in this instance, why not in others? "I started to think, maybe we ought to consider this drug problem a public health problem rather than a criminal justice problem," Schmoke says. (He is currently developing a needle exchange program for city clinics in Baltimore.)

Drug decriminalization was something Schmoke had thought about in "a general sort of way" after a harrowing personal brush with drug violence. While working at the U.S. attorney's office, Schmoke had befriended Marcellus Ward, a narcot- ics detective working on a federal- state drug task force. One day when Ward was executing an undercover drug purchase, there was an unexpected police bust. Panicking, the dealer pulled out a .357 and shot Ward three times -- once in the hand, twice in the heart, killing him. When the case came to trial, Schmoke was state's attorney, with responsibility for deciding whether to seek the death penalty, a question that turned on intent. Ward had been wearing a wire, so Schmoke made his decision by listening over and over again to the tape of his friend's murder. "It kept me up many nights," Schmoke says.

Schmoke decided to seek the death penalty, but the jury chose a life sentence instead. Afterward, he says, "I started thinking about what Ward was trying to achieve, what we were all trying to achieve, in using police officers to fight this drug problem . . . This enormous appetite for mind-altering substances, whether it's nicotine, alcohol, marijuana or what else, isn't influenced by police action. I just think that we're asking too much of our police officers."

Schmoke's decriminalization speech, given four months after he became mayor, sparked a nationwide debate that continues to this day. Schmoke made his case on "Nightline" and before the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control. The response was overwhelmingly negative (though Schmoke notes optimistically that lately his mail carries the more tolerant message of you're-wrong-but-it's-worth-debating). Right or wrong, it's hard not to give Schmoke points for political bravery. Unlike the day he wowed the Yale faculty, this time Schmoke had taken a stand.

But being mayor involves more than being on "Nightline." Schmoke is receiving a crash course in why big-city mayors so rarely advance in American politics: 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, and Schmoke is already drawing criticism for not showing enough results, especially in the schools.

Schmoke's first mistake was organizational. When he came into office, he established a sort of cabinet government with five "executive assistants." City agencies complained they couldn't get through to the mayor, and eventually the jobs of the five deputies were consolidated into that of a single chief of staff. (Three of the five have since left city government altogether.)

The new mayor's campaign to improve the schools first stumbled when his newly installed School Board president, Meldon Hollis Jr., admitted that he had deliberately lied to other board members in a misguided attempt to track down press leaks. Amid the furor that followed, Schmoke removed Hollis as president (though he kept him on the board). Then Schmoke's choice for school superintendent, Richard Hunter, blocked an innovative experiment in which one of the city schools would receive a $250,000 foundation grant to implement the more challenging curriculum of the Barclay School, a private school in Baltimore. Schmoke stepped in to overrule Hunter, but subsequently the cost of the proposed experiment more than doubled. Next it was discovered that textbooks were piled high in warehouses while classrooms suffered textbook shortages. This time, Schmoke reaped more favorable publicity from the crisis by making sure the press witnessed a mayoral visit to the warehouse in which Schmoke called for -- and got -- quick ac- tion. Still, criticism of Schmoke's muted leadership style persists, focusing most recently on his seemingly ambivalent decision not to replace Hunter. "I don't think he's assumed the office yet," says former City Council president Walter Orlinsky. "I forget what it was like to have a mayor."

Maybe the problem is that city government itself has become obsolete. Increasingly it is the state, not the city, that provides the money needed to solve Baltimore's problems. Schmoke has urged the state to assume responsibility for funding the city jail, the circuit court, the state's attorney's office, the sheriff's office and the orphans' court. Meanwhile, the state recently agreed to assume financial responsibility for the city's community college, and also to boost its contribution to the public library main branch, which Schaefer would like the state to absorb, along with the convention center. Tellingly, many people in Baltimore -- even staunch allies of Kurt Schmoke -- still refer to Schaefer absent-mindedly as "the mayor," partly, to be sure, out of habit, but also, one suspects, in recognition that the city's fate lies beyond the city's borders.

Thus the ultimate paradox of being Kurt Schmoke: To advance beyond the office of mayor, he needs to show results, but to show results, he needs to advance to . . . what?

Schmoke adamantly denies he is thinking beyond the mayor's office, but the speculation is inevitable. Schmoke's strong standing in the polls makes it unlikely he'll have much trouble getting reelected in 1991. The interesting year is 1994, when Schaefer will likely be completing his second (and, as mandated by the state constitution, last) term as governor. Assuming Schmoke has by then acquired a decent reputation as an executive -- at this point, still a big if -- it would be logical to set his sights on Annapolis. Another possibility, raised by Robert Embry, is that Paul Sarbanes, having served out three terms as U.S. senator, will retire and throw his support to his fellow Rhodes scholar.

In the meantime, Schmoke faces an obstacle course worthy of a star athlete. He needs to raise the spirits of a declining city. He needs to make progress toward solving inner city problems that the federal government has all but given up on. And he needs to persuade a man he's barely speaking with to provide generous state financial support. It's enough to make even someone of Schmoke's legendary intelligence and poise and thoughtful concern throw his arms up and shout at the top of his lungs: Enough!

Timothy Noah is a Washington writer.

Testifying before Congress in 1988, Schmoke proposed three "initial first steps" toward decriminalization. The first is to eliminate all remaining criminal penalties for mar- ijuana possession. Money previously spent on interdiction would instead be channeled into drug abuse prevention programs. This proposal simply carries to its logical conclusion the decriminalization that has already taken place in a dozen states, where marijuana possession is now punishable by the equivalent of a traffic ticket. (Alaska has gone so far as to legalize all home-grown cannabis.) But marijuana legalization would face at least one major bureaucratic obstacle: Because it comes in conspicuous bales, marijuana is by far the easiest drug to interdict, giving law enforcement agencies their most frequent opportunities to claim victory in the war on drugs -- opportunities they are unlikely to want to give up.

Step two is to allow "public health professionals" to distribute heroin and cocaine to addicts "as part of supervised maintenance or treatment programs." This builds on existing methadone treatment programs for heroin users, which Schmoke would also like to expand.

Step three, the most controversial part of Schmoke's proposal, is exploration of broader decriminalization. This would be done through creation of a government commission that would "study substance abuse, including tobacco and alcohol, and make recommendations on how they should be regulated based upon their potential for harm." Presumably the panel would recommend taking at least some money currently spent on prosecution and redirecting it toward drug rehabilitation.

Schmoke argues that America's efforts to prosecute itself out of the drug crisis are destined to fail because the criminal justice system can process only a small fraction of the lawbreakers. As it is, he says, one-third of all federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug law violations. (Prison overcrowding is a matter of particular concern in Baltimore, which is under court order to reduce its jail population.) What's more, Schmoke argues, criminal penalties serve to drive up the profits of drug traffickers. Organized crime's share of drug revenues has been estimated to be as high as $50 billion per year. To Schmoke, drug kingpins are the Al Capones of the 1990s -- criminals getting rich off a latter-day Prohibition.

But if today's drug prohibitions were repealed, what would the consequences be? For all its shortcomings, alcohol Prohibition did reduce consumption of alcohol in this country from an average of 2.6 gallons to 0.73 gallons per person each year. Since repeal the average has bounced back up to 2.6 gallons. Similarly, after Great Britain in 1968 loosened restrictions on physicians treating addicts with heroin, addiction to opiates (primarily heroin) soared. The epidemic was especially severe in working-class Liverpool, which British tabloids nicknamed "Smack City." The universally acknowledged worst-case scenario is the opium epidemic in China, where addicts once numbered in the millions. The problem was "solved" by Mao Zedong through mass execution.

Decriminalization advocates prefer to cite the Netherlands's legalization of marijuana in 1976. Law enforcement officials allowed hashish to be sold in coffee shops and youth centers, but, surprisingly, consumption leveled off, and the number of new users actually declined.

In written testimony submitted to Congress, Schmoke conceded that providing legal access to drugs "carries with it the chance -- although by no means the certainty -- that the number of people using and abusing drugs will increase." To reduce that potential harm, Schmoke suggests that penalties for driving while impaired be increased, and that all advertisements for drugs (including alcohol and tobacco) be banned. But setting aside First Amendment questions about whether any category of advertising can be banned, would this be enough to prevent an increase in drug use and drug addiction?

Not according to drug czar William Bennett. In a speech last December at Harvard, Bennett attacked drug legalization as "a recipe for a public policy disaster." Bennett cited the crack epidemic as "a kind of cruel national experiment" in what happens when a dangerous drug becomes cheap and widely available. When powder cocaine was expensive, Bennett argued, it was found only among the rich, but when the price dropped to $3 per vial of crack, cocaine use skyrocketed -- this time among the poor. Interestingly, heroin rather than crack is still the abuser's drug of choice in Baltimore, though crack use is increasing, along with the murder rate.

"With legalization," Bennett concluded, "drug use will go up, way up." Answers Schmoke: "He doesn't know that . . . I believe that over the long run you would have decreased use." Who's right? The only real way to find out what happens when drugs are legalized is to legalize drugs. As with all reforms, the question boils down to whether the possibility that life could be made better is worth the risk that life could be made worse.