More than 5,000 supporters of Kurt L. Schmoke streamed into the National Guard armory here today to raise money, but also to raise the political profile of the city state's attorney who few doubt will make a bid for the mayor's office.
Schmoke, a bespectacled 35-year-old Rhodes Scholar and former municipal bond lawyer, doesn't say when he will make the run for City Hall, but there are few political observers in Baltimore or elsewhere in the state who do not see today's gala as a step on the way to that goal, even though the next mayoral election is not until 1987.
During the weeks that preceded today's campaign fund-raiser, hundreds of blue-and-white signs touting the event were posted on front lawns and in row house windows throughout the city. Baltimore looked as if it were caught up in a vigorous off-year election that had only one candidate.
"I've made no bones about the fact that I want to be mayor sometime, so people have to know me," Schmoke said in an interview last week.
"You can't run a mayor's race on a $25-a-ticket fund-raiser," he added. "It's clear that we're trying to keep people interested in Kurt Schmoke."
Schmoke swept onto Baltimore's political scene in 1982, when he announced his candidacy for state's attorney. Five months later, the man with no political background had mobilized a black community and the city's white liberal establishment and easily defeated incumbent William A. Swisher.
Evidence of that coalition was everywhere today as supporters gathered to eat hot dogs, munch pizza and rub political elbows. U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Reps. Barbara A. Mikulski and Parren J. Mitchell shared the receiving line with Schmoke and a dozen other elected officials. Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who aides said was out of town, was notably absent.
Schmoke, a Baltimore native, is not the city's first black state's attorney, but his 1982 victory awakened the black vote in the majority black city as no other campaign for the prosecutor's office had. Popular political wisdom here has long held that the city's next mayor will be black if Schaefer, who is in his fourth term, ever relinquishes his virtual stranglehold on the office.
Black political strategists elsewhere in the state also have seized on Schmoke's potential. "He sets a role model for the kinds of things we are trying to do politically," said Prince George's Del. Albert R. Wynn, who attended the fund-raiser. "He bucked the system . . . . Quite frankly, we want to pick up pointers on how to do it."
Montgomery County Del. Mary H. Boergers agreed. "I think he's the kind of person who is good at building bridges between diverse and often antagonistic groups."
The day after Schmoke was elected state's attorney, the rumors about his political future began. Some mentioned a try for a seat in Congress. Others murmured about elected posts in state government.
But for the record, Schmoke says he has ruled out state jobs and is focusing his attention on his reelection campaign in 1986. "You get in trouble looking beyond your next election," he said.
Part of those decisions had to do with his family, according to Schmoke, who said he prefers to hold office locally in order to spend more free time at home.
"I didn't want to become a figment of my children's imagination," he said. Schmoke and his wife Patricia, 31, an ophthalmologist, live in Baltimore with their two children, Gregory, 13, and Katherine, 5.
He remains an oddity in Baltimore politics -- a newcomer without a political machine. And in the divided world of black politics in Baltimore, Schmoke belongs to neither the west side organization of Mitchell nor the east side clubs that spawned City Council President Clarence H. (Du) Burns' political career.
Instead, he is an independent political entity who says crime prevention is more important than prosecution. But on several occasions, he has chosen to prosecute high-profile death penalty cases himself.
In his 2 1/2 years on the job, Schmoke has transformed what had been a racially negative image of the prosecutor's office by increasing the number of black attorneys there from four to 24. He also has almost tripled the number of women attorneys from 16 to 47. There are 130 attorneys on his staff.
But his growing ambition makes many old-line politicians nervous.
"I don't see what all this hue and cry is about who's gonna be the next mayor," council president Burns said in an interview last week. "I know who the next mayor's gonna be. Me."
Burns, 66, became the city's first black council president in 1982 when he succeeded Walter Orlinsky, who had been convicted on extortion charges arising from his handling of a sludge disposal contract.
At the fund-raiser, Burns, who is a close Schaefer ally, stood just outside the spotlight in Schmoke's receiving line, shaking hands and looking like a candidate himself. If Schaefer runs for governor in 1986, as many here expect, Burns has said he will support him. If Schaefer wins, Burns could succeed him and have 11 months in office before facing any challenger in 1987.
Schmoke hedges only slightly when asked whether he will support his friend Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, who is already actively campaigning throughout the state for governor.
Sachs "was a great supporter of mine," he said. "I think he'd make a great governor," adding that there is an "institutional tension" between Schaefer and himself. Sachs also stood near the beginning of the receiving line, while his campaign manager stood not far behind.
Schmoke declines to speculate over these political scenarios. "I'm clearly not trying to start the beginning of the mayor's campaign," Schmoke said last week. "I wouldn't try to inflict that on the public."
Yet supporters from his 1982 campaign are clearly advising him to do just that.
"I'd like to see him run sooner than later," said Ronald M. Shapiro, an influential attorney who is treasurer of Schmoke's campaign committee and part of the brain trust that engineered his 1982 victory.
Visibility does not seem to be a problem for Schmoke. Last week, he published a slick, 120-page midterm report filled with church and business advertising and, not coincidentally, with pictures of Schmoke. And throughout the year, he speaks at community meetings several nights a week.
"It's only in black history month that I'm out every night," he said, smiling widely. "I was in everybody's pulpit, everybody's school." The message he hears, he said, is that everyone wants to know what he is doing to promote public safety.
But at times like this, when the city and state are gearing up for another season of electioneering, the talk about Schmoke inevitably turns to his future.
At lunch in a downtown restaurant last week, a priest at a nearby table leaned over to tell him he had heard that Schmoke is to be the city's next mayor.
"Spread that rumor," Schmoke said in return.