A Tale of Miscalculations

March 23, 1995

"There is nothing wrong with a low-ball offer, but don't insult the seller," one local real estate agent tells would-be buyers.

The same goes for politics. Attempting stonewalling is bad enough, but don't take it so far that it angers politicians facing re-election.

Yet this is what the Schmoke administration has managed to do. With the cooperation of Councilwoman Vera P. Hall, who conducted a charade of a housing hearing that insulted her colleagues, the mayor has now assured that the troubled $25.6 million public housing repair program will remain a campaign issue until the Sept. 12 primary.

This is a godsend for Mary Pat Clarke, the City Council president who is trying to derail Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's bid for a third term. Smelling blood, she resuscitated a dormant committee to look into the irregularities. She packed it with her supporters and appointed Councilman Martin O'Malley to head it.

In its naked opportunism, hers was a masterful stroke. Mr. O'Malley, when seen performing in local night spots may seem like a charming and harmless Irish balladeer, but the former state prosecutor has political-killer instincts. Starting tomorrow, he will be digging dirt and doing everything he can to embarrass Schmoke administration officials who refuse to cooperate with his panel.

"Somebody needs to do this," Mr. O'Malley says of his effort, promising to proceed "methodically and systematically."

The reaction of Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III was predictable.

"I've got a housing authority and a housing agency to run and I don't have time to play games with these kids," he said of the council committee.

In its decision to act as an accomplice in Mrs. Hall's ham-handed exercise in obfuscation, the Schmoke administration won a Pyrrhic victory: It now must face a far more unpredictable fishing expedition by Mr. O'Malley, a young and hungry politician with seemingly unlimited ambition.

In dealing with the O'Malley panel, the mayor has to balance the cost of further stonewalling against possible damages from revelations about irregularities in the housing repair program.

This is a dilemma of the Schmoke camp's own doing. Its roots are in the scorn City Hall routinely exhibits toward the City Council and its legitimate quest for information about public programs. If this is payback time, the mayor has no one but himself and his advisers to blame.

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