What city needs is Pressman's deeds

March 21, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

"The greatest broom-pushers in all the nation/Are in the Department of Sanitation./They earn their awards without intrigue/From the Women's Civic League./Every collection crew is great/The best truck 3738./The chauffeur is Walter Whittemore/He speeds through the alleys with his foot to the floor."

Hyman Aaron Pressman, June 19, 1969, presenting the city's Sanitation Department awards.

Shakespearean, no?

Or how about this one from Pressman, penned for a 1976 taxpayers meeting:

"With unemployment and steep inflation/We just can't stand unfair taxation./Taxes milk dry, you'll have to allow/And overassessment kills the cow./Do what you want 'neath City Hall's dome/But do not overassess my home." Whitmanesque, no?


Well, how about this one, on the occasion of William Donald Schaefer's 50th birthday in October of 1971:

"Hey, girls, you passed up something nifty./He has blue eyes and he's only 50./He doesn't drink or attend burlesque./You may find Ross Pierpont under his desk./He isn't rich, for goodness sake./But that's because he's not on the take."

Hyman Pressman's life was a poem composed on an adding machine. In this time of his dying, it's easy to make comparisons and we will between the man who was city comptroller for 28 years without a whisper of scandal, and the shameful headlines that have followed.

But, almost as much as his flinty eye on the city's money, this community misses his sense of joy. Pressman had vaudeville in his soul. He was hungry to be loved, and he translated that love not only into instant public verse, glorifying the sanitation workers and the mayors and taxpayers at random, but also into a ferocity on the job.

He looked into all the dark corners where wayward money might be hidden, and then he'd call a grand press conference and make sure everybody in town knew he'd been looking into all those dark corners, so they could pat him on the head and say, "Nice work, Hymie."

He understood that politics is theater, and the play doesn't have to be Russian tragedy. Remember election nights in Baltimore? The surest sight, always, was Hyman Pressman dancing all night long: dancing with women he knew and women he didn't, dancing with his carefully choreographed wisps of hair coming undone, dancing until everyone else had gone home exhausted.

We miss the sense of dancing in the public life of this city now. Seriousness is all. The politicians talk like insurance agents and hope we'll be too bored to pay attention. When Hyman Pressman was 63 years old, he contemplated running the bases at Memorial Stadium and sliding into home plate. You can't do that, he was told. You could break a leg.

"What's a broken leg," Pressman said, "when you get all that applause?"

In the comptroller's office since his leaving, there is no applause. Where we once took his integrity for granted, we've learned to brace ourselves for outrage.

There was Jacqueline McLean, trying to play the city for a sucker, and then paying the price in a sad succession of hospital rooms and courtrooms. We turn away from her now because it isn't nice to stare at tragedy. So we arrive at Joan Pratt. Here was a chance, post-McLean, to bring back public confidence in the comptroller's office. Instead, she brings us Julius Henson.

He is her close friend. He was also her campaign manager and former investment partner in some rental properties. As The Sun's JoAnna Daemmrich reported, at least two of the properties were pretty badly run down. Housing inspectors took note of various violations and then, as is sometimes their wont, they seemed to lose track. On one property, the violations haven't been fixed for 13 years.

With this as background, Pratt declared she'd hire Henson to run the city's real estate office. This was stunning news to everyone, because Pratt was asked, during her recent campaign for office, if Henson would play a role in her administration. No, Pratt said, he wouldn't, because he had "no experience."

Yesterday, she changed her story. She said Henson was the best qualified person for the job. She was asked, have you interviewed other candidates? No, Pratt said. So, how was he the best qualified person? Well, he managed her campaign, Pratt said.

So much for truth in politics. So much for integrity in the city comptroller's office. Joan Pratt may yet make everybody forget Jacqueline McLean. Julius Henson, with a background of crummy rental properties, will oversee 350 city buildings valued at $3.2 billion. He will report directly to Pratt. The job used to pay a salary of $67,000. Julius Henson will be paid $79,000.

Yesterday, the city's Board of Estimates OK'd Henson's appointment. Joan Pratt opened the meeting by asking everyone for a moment of silence in memory of Hyman Pressman. Now, ain't that an ironic piece of poetry?

Pub Date: 3/21/96

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