William Swisher, Kurt L. Schmoke and the debacle at Days Inn

The death of William Swisher brings back the fond memory of the highlight of my year as president of the old Maryland Press Club.

Swisher was seeking reelection as Baltimore state’s attorney, and opposed by Kurt L. Schmoke in the all-important Democratic primary. I invited both of them to the monthly luncheon meeting of the club at the Towson Days Inn, and Schmoke immediately accepted. But Swisher — who had refused to debate Schmoke — said he would not appear on the same stage as his opponent.

William Swisher was upset in a landslide by Kurt L. Schmoke in the 1982 election for Baltimore City State's Attorney.
William Swisher was upset in a landslide by Kurt L. Schmoke in the 1982 election for Baltimore City State’s Attorney.

Schmoke would speak to the club and 20 minutes later Swisher would follow. The Associated Press then posted on its calendar of local news events the press club playing host to Swisher and Schmoke in what likely would be the only debate of the campaign. AP’s incorrect description of the event brought a nice media turnout, including a crew from WBAL-TV that got the amazing scene.

It started with the motel marquee welcoming both Swisher and Schmoke. Swisher was angry that the event had been billed as a debate and called to say he would not appear. The motel staff put up a ladder and a workman climbed up to remove Swisher’s name. Then Swisher suddenly appeared, and the workman scurried back to replace his name on the marquee. But a minute after storming into the motel lobby, Swisher went back outside and, in a short and angry commentary on the parking lot, claimed that David Ettlin, as in me, had set him up for an ambush to appear with Schmoke and he wasn’t going to do it. Then off he drove — as the workman climbed up the ladder again to remove his name.

Swisher, the white incumbent and favorite of the old guard political establishment, lost the election. Schmoke became state’s attorney and went on to become Baltimore’s first elected black mayor — and now is president of the University of Baltimore. The election marked a racial turning point in city politics. Caught in the middle that day, I was not very happy — but looking back decades later, it was a hoot!