One thousand students were waiting outside the Yale faculty meeting a few days before May Day 1970 when students and black faculty members were demanding that Yale show solidarity with Bobby Seale and other Black Panthers on trial in New Haven for murder. By special arrangement, one student, Kurt Schmoke, a junior from Baltimore, was allowed in to speak. "Many of the students in the group are committed to a cause," he said, "but there are a great number of students on campus who are confused and many who are frightened. They don't know what to think. You are our teachers. You are the people we respect. We look to you for guidance and moral leadership. On behalf of my fellow students, I beg you to give it to us."
It was not the kind of inflammatory rhetoric the faculty was used to, and to which Yale President Kingman Brewster was responding when he said, just minutes later, "I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States." Kurt Schmoke says he remains convinced Seale was being persecuted for political reasons. But he believes now that a black radical, or anyone else holding unpopular views, can get a fair trial in the United States today.
That's not too surprising, for Kurt Schmoke is in the trial business himself. He's the state's attorney in Baltimore, head of an office with 133 prosecutors, and he's widely considered likely to be elected mayor in 1987. "I want to be the mayor at some point," he says, with more than the usual politician's candor. He leaves open the possibility of running against popular incumbent William Donald Schaefer in 1987 or, if Schaefer is elected governor next year, against Council President Clarence "Du" Burns, who would succeed him.
Yet in person Schmoke doesn't seem more imposing than he must have seemed to the Yale faculty in May 1970. He is of medium height, trim, and looks younger than his 35 years; he speaks gracefully and eloquently in pleasant conversational tones interspersed with plenty of laughter. He lives in a modest neighborhood near where he grew up on Baltimore's west side, is married to an ophthalmologist, has children of age 14 and 5, and commutes in a car pool. Yet, he has the power of life and death: "I've had 75 defendants that fit within the purview of Maryland's death penalty. I filed notice in eight cases, and withdrew it in one case after reviewing it in a second petition."
Usually he plays down his role. He doesn't bring it up in regard to the Seale controversy at Yale; rather, "I spent my time creating a day care center." It was named after Calvin Hill, the Yale football hero who was also from Baltimore and who invited high school junior Schmoke up to New Haven.
Schmoke was a talented athlete (a high school quarterback who lettered at Yale) who "always had a sense I was going to college." His father was a chemist who worked for the Army at Fort Aberdeen; his family back in North Carolina was filled with college grads. His mother was from south Georgia, went to Spellman College and became a social worker. The parents were divorced and both remarried; Schmoke saw his father regularly on weekends and attended his church, and in summers visited relatives all over the South.
He makes his schooling sound as easy. He entered grade school just as Brown v. Board of Education integrated Baltimore's schools: "Every year, as I progressed, I benefited from the changes Brown was intended to make." At Yale he did very well, became a Rhodes Scholar, and traveled all over Europe and Africa; his draft lottery number was 129 and he was never called up. Then, on Kingman Brewster's advice, he went to Harvard Law, where, to hear Schmoke tell it, he spent more time playing touch football and advising college freshmen and getting married -- he met his wife on a blind date and they were married a few months later -- than on his books. Still, he did well enough to get hired by Piper & Marbury, the big Baltimore law firm: "It wasn't culture shock. I'd gone to enough cocktail parties to know how to handle myself." From there he went on to Stuart Eizenstat's office in the Carter White House.
And then electoral politics. Schmoke's parents were not active in politics, he says; he was not part of the web of connections between neighborhood activists and pols that are the warp and woof of Baltimore political life. His campaign organization was assembled by Maryland law professor Larry Gibson; fund raising came from various sources, black and downtown; he got the support of black ministers and, in the last week, of Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs (whom he now supports for governor). He had spotted an opening: in black-majority Baltimore, the incumbent "Mr. Swisher, if not a racist, was insensitive to the black community." Schmoke won by a much bigger margin than expected, sweeping black precincts and winning 22 percent of the white vote.
Schmoke is operating politically in Baltimore as classmate John Taft describes him in a book on "Mayday at Yale": "generally a lone wolf," one "who calmed tensions, clarified the confusion, and participated in a lot of things." The 20- year-old who impressed both faculty and protesting students at Yale is now a 35-year-old who personally tried a prisoner for murdering a guard and, despite admitting that other guards' earlier testimony was false, got a second-degree conviction. In April, 5,000 people showed up at his $25 fund- raiser; most of Baltimore's leading politicians were there, though not Don Schaefer. He recognizes a rival when he sees him.