Becoming mayor of a troubled city seems, above all else, a high form of masochism. After all, what sort of person would willingly take on the role of political scapegoat for all that ails urban America? In late-1980s Baltimore, Kurt Schmoke was that masochist, albeit one with extraordinary promise.
In electing Schmoke mayor in 1988, the cityfor decades at the receiving end of an unrelenting rustbelt pummelingput up its dukes. A local high-school star, both academically and athletically, Schmoke had achieved a level of elite success rare to the traditionally working-class city. By the age of 30, he was a Yale graduate, Rhodes Scholar, Harvard law grad, domestic policy staffer for the Carter Administration, and assistant US attorney.
"The 'drug problem' is viewed by the majority of our citizens as a 'moral issue.' When you're talking about drugs, it's 'those people,' not 'us.'
Despite his promise, Schmoke left the mayor's office with a mixed legacy. During his 12-year tenure, Baltimore saw its precipitous decline in population continue unabated, and its homicide rate skyrocketeven by Baltimore standards. Along the way, though, Schmoke was honored by the first President Bush for his literacy campaign, and in 1994 President Clinton chose Baltimore as one of six cities to receive tax incentives in the form of Empowerment Zone status.
Regardless of his accomplishments or failures, what Schmoke will be most remembered for is his heretical stance on the War on Drugs. The establishment was so uncomfortable with his ideas on illegal drug reformdubbed "medicalization" by him; "legalization" by his detractorsthat longtime New York Congressman Charles Rangel once called him "the most dangerous man in America." (In his typically ironic style, David Simon gives Schmoke a cameo as Baltimore's hardline anti-drug Health Commissioner in The Wire. In one episode, Schmoke condemns the mayor for considering an experiment with drug liberalization in much the same way Rangel denounced him.)
Since 2003, Schmoke has been the Dean of Howard University's law school in Washington, D.C., but he still lives in the Ashburton neighborhood of Baltimore. He spoke to Gelf by phone from his D.C. office about his mayoral legacy, whether his stance on drugs will ever become politically tenable, and how The Wire reflects the world just as much as it does Baltimore.
Gelf Magazine: What is your favorite season of The Wire?
Kurt Schmoke: It's hard to use the word "favorite" with that show. I guess I thought the season that focused on the problems at the Harbor, at the docks, was interesting in that it underscored the point that the drug problem wasn't just an inner-city, black-neighborhood problem. And that's something many people seem not to understandthat it's broader than just the low-income or racially-identifiable problem.
GM: How did you get involved with the show? Did they contact you?
KS: I know some of the people involved in writing and producing it. I met David Simon when he was a reporter [at the Baltimore Sun] and I was mayor. And [co-writer Ed] Burns, I met when the two of them collaborated on Homicide. Bill Zorzi was a writer for the Sun, who I knew, again, through his covering politics and my being in office. I can't remember who contacted me; it was either Simon or Zorzi who contacted me about doing a cameo. I had done cameos on Homicide while I was in office. I played myselfthe mayor. In The Wire, I played the health commissioner.
GM: Did you laugh at the role reversal?
KS: I could understand why David wanted me to play that role, and some of the irony of the line they gave me, about telling the mayor he could be considered "the most dangerous man in America" if he continues his policy on drugs, because that's exactly what an elected official said to me when I was mayor.
GM: What does The Wire mean to the city of Baltimore?
KS: I do think that the writers and producers try to convey the message that the show isn't just about Baltimore, it's about urban America. Unfortunately, that message gets lost a lot times. They're not giving a balanced viewthey're giving a slice, the troubled part. All of us who live there realize that it's one part of the city, but it doesn't in any way define the city of Baltimore. The line in my Guardian piece about the "rot" beneath the glitterthat's all The Wire is doing: exploring and exposing the rot. But that's not the entire city.
"A murder is a matter of great concern. What I don't think a lot of people want to address are some of the ideas the country could pursue that could reduce the murder rate dramatically."GM: I think, because The Wire is, in many ways, a show about ordinary peopleand such a compelling one at thatviewers tend to believe it's very realistic. How accurate is it really?
KS: It's pretty clear to me that The Wire hasn't done to the city of Baltimore what Miami Vice did to Miami. Maybe they're going to do it in this last season and take you around some of the really nice neighborhoods, the Inner Harbor. The parts that they talk aboutthe plight of the children in some of the schools, the struggles of families suffering from multiple addictions, all those things happen in Baltimore. The bodies being thrown into vacant houses so the police can't find themthat happened. There are aspects that are realistic. But it's in no way a comprehensive look at the entire city.
GM: Why are the oft-referred to "two cities" of Baltimore so profoundly disparate? Is this unique to the city, or is it inevitably American?
KS: It's not even America. There are parts of London that fit this mold. Clearly, Baltimore is a big citywhich has its Tale of Two Cities. There are high concentrations of poverty that lead to some of the problems that are explored in The Wire. But you can find them in New Orleansas it was exposed in Hurricane Katrina; Philadelphiaas it was exposed in its murder rate last year; Chicago; Detroit.
GM: Do we have an obsession with crime?
KS: A murder is a matter of great concern. What I don't think a lot of people want to address are some of the ideas the country could pursue that could reduce the murder rate dramatically. When we talk about decriminalizing drugs, taking profit out of it could reduce [crime] at the street level.
GM: Why are we so reluctant to formally acknowledge the failure of the War On Drugs?
KS: What's currently called "illegal drugs" have been distinguished from a formerly illegal drug, alcohol, and demonized in a way alcohol was not during the Prohibition era. The reason I say that is because the "drug problem" is viewed by the majority of our citizens as a "moral issue." The majority know people who have an alcohol problem. When you're talking about drugs, it's "those people," not "us." It's "them." There's a moral element to dealing with the drug problem that's not there with alcohol. So we can take penalties off the distribution of alcohol, but we don't do that with marijuana.
GM: To what extent would drug reform affect the American city?
KS: It would have a huge impact. If you took the profit out of distributing drugs at the street level, you would dramatically reduce the homicide numbers. What's going on in many cities isn't people being hooked on drugs; it's people being hooked on drug money. If you undermine that, it would lead to a reduction in violence. Not the eliminationthere's always going to be evil in the worldbut [reduction of] this high level tied to drug distribution.
GM: Who do you see as the presidential candidate most likely to tolerate, or even advocate, some sort of drug reform?
KS: I'm not sure. I've heard candidates speak about this, but you'd have to move a Congress, and I don't know that any of [the candidates] will really spend time on this issue. It's not on the radar screen among Americans as one of the top five issues, as it had been in the '80s and '90s.
GM: I guess terrorism has superseded it.
KS: Oh, yeah. Employment, the subprime crisis, the war on terroreven though [the wars on terror and drugs] are related. It's been shown that international organizations use the sale of opium to fund some of their operations. As long as there's a market, they'll pursue it. I think it's a relationship the government ought to consider, but apparently no one wants to.
GM: Why is crime in Baltimore so resistant to reduction, while New Yorkand cities like Chicago, and LA, to a lesser extenthave experienced considerable drops in violence?
KS: My sense that is has to do with the concentration of poverty per 100,000 people. Even though Baltimore is the size of Staten Island, a large percentage of its citizenry is poor, in comparison to New York City, and that has some impact on it. But there's no easy answer. If that were the only issue, you could look it up. It's hard to say, and nobody's quite figured it out over the last 30 years.
"I think the city is on the road to some success, but the drug issue just hangs over it like a brooding omnipresence."GM: If all politics were truly cast asideand manipulating crime statistics to meet quotas or "teaching to the test" were no longer issueswould the city unquestionably benefit, as The Wire repeatedly implies?
KS: I really don't think it would be a huge change unless there's a significant change in national drug-control policy. I think Baltimore will continue to be affected by a high murder rate.
Most of the city isn't laboring under these kinds of problems. You have beautiful tree-lined neighborhoods, Johns Hopkins. A big middle class sending their kids to parochial schools. If you go into the city and ask people, they won't even talk about [public] schools. They'll say they love their neighborhood; that real estate is good, and they get a good value for their dollar.
GM: In actuality, how do you think the city is doing?
KS: Well, I think there's a degree of optimism now because you have a new mayor. And these kinds of transitions generally bring about a honeymoon or period of optimism. I think the city is on the road to some success, but the drug issue just hangs over it. Oliver Wendell Holmes used the term a "brooding omnipresence," and that's the problemthe drug problem hangs over Baltimore like a brooding omnipresence.
GM: How realistic was [fictional mayor] Tommy Carcetti's depiction of [former Baltimore Mayor and current Maryland Governor Martin] O'Malley in The Wire? Have O'Malley or [current Baltimore Mayor Sheila] Dixon said anything to you about the show?
KS: I think what David did was to composite some of the politicians. And Carcetti is a composite of some local politicians. I don't think it was just O'Malley. I've seen some of that conduct by other elected officials.
I know O'Malley didn't like the show, and didn't even go to any of the premieres. Mayor Dixon has talked more about keeping it in perspective. I know she went to the premiere of the fifth season. But the comments that she said to me about it were, "let's keep it in perspectivethis is all big cities, not just Baltimore."
GM: Who'd you vote for in the 2007 mayoral election, Dixon or [Keiffer] Mitchell?
KS: [Laughs]. That's the one I have to keep private.