His life is a play in many acts Interview: The former City Council president and head of the state's tree-planting program now puts out a newspaper and runs a Web site

Catching Up With ... Wally Orlinsky

August 25, 1996|By LAURA LIPPMAN | LAURA LIPPMAN,SUN STAFF

Wally Orlinksy -- "Nobody calls me Walter" -- is at Mike's Place in Hampden, a long, narrow diner that functions as a second office for him. Is this his version of a power breakfast?

"This is the power breakfast," says the former City Council president, now 58. "What everyone else has is a version of this."

Don't try to tell Orlinsky there are no second acts in America. Walter S. Orlinksy is now on his third, possibly fourth act as publisher of the Baltimore News, a struggling newspaper in which the investors include former Gov. William Donald Schaefer and former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. Yes, Orlinsky has looked at public life from both sides now -- and discovered that what newspapers really do is sell advertising.

"The critical issues end up being advertising, bringing in business," says Orlinksy, who suspended publication in the spring, managed to bring out an issue in July and hopes to have another out in September, but please don't hold him to that.

Scathing editorials

The tabloid is, for the most part, a typical community paper with a hodgepodge of local news. But it also features scathing editorials about Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke by Orlinksy and Schaefer, prompting some to speculate that the Baltimore News, along with its much cheaper-to-produce World Wide Web site, exists as a bully pulpit. And the City Paper has wondered generally at the fitness of Orlinsky, convicted on bribery charges 14 years ago, to be a voluble critic of recent city scandals.

"I'd like nothing better than to be able to sing the mayor's praises, and the administration's praises," Orlinksy said. "Unfortunately, they don't give you much of an opportunity. A friend of mine in the current administration -- high up enough to attend the important meetings -- says the mayor will make a decision, a right decision, assign someone to do it and there is zero follow-through. Certainly none by him, none by his chief of staff."

He's on a roll now. "If you take a look at how the city operates, it's clear that Schmoke himself is uncomfortable with the nitty-gritty of it, and the bubbling caldron of humanity. I don't think he remotely understood how certain people -- the middle-class people who are staying -- reacted to that last round of drastic budget cuts he threatened."

Whatever one's feelings about Orlinsky, he has stayed in the city, in Charles Village, with the trash in the alleys and the plants that disappear from back porches and the people who slash your convertible roof for no good reason. Yes, every now and then he thinks of flight, as almost every city resident does. But he always changes his mind.

"I don't want to live my life in the tranquillity of a suburban tract, watching television," he says. "I am a city person. I love the cacophony, the noise, the language."

He says he never misses being a politician, but he does admit to a nostalgia for the politics he knew, the happy times when he and Schaefer presided over the city. The two had the good fortune to serve during the city's flush times in the 1970s, as money was poured into the Inner Harbor development and the city's neighborhoods.

Was there really so much money?

"Oh, yeah," he says.

Orlinsky's first elective post was as a state delegate. He then decided to run for City Council president in 1971, after redistricting changed the demographics of his district. He remained in that job until 1982, although he did seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 1978. He resigned after pleading guilty to federal extortion charges for accepting more than $10,000 from a sludge-hauling firm that wanted a city contract.

He served 4 1/2 months at a federal penitentiary in Allenwood, Pa., remarking upon his release: "Don't do the time if you can't do the crime."

Asked now about his precipitous fall, and the way it affected his public image, Orlinsky seems to have an answer waiting.

'I am deeply ashamed of it'

"I did something I never should have done," he says. "I never denied it, I never tried to hide it. I am deeply ashamed of it. There's nothing I can do to eradicate it. I can only live now, and do the best I can."

A little more than eight years ago, he found his next act, running the state's tree-planting program, thanks to an appointment by Schaefer, then in the governor's mansion. He estimates he has overseen the planting of more than seven million trees in those eight years and says no phase of his life has given him greater pleasure. He flips through his calendar, calling out the dates of plantings planned for fall.

But this, too, is drawing to a close. "It receives partial funds from the federal government, and I've been Newted," Orlinksy says. "And the state has its own budget problems, so "

Has anyone ever joked about Orlinsky-the-tree-planter being Orlinsky-the-tree-killer now that he publishes a newspaper? "We use recycled paper," he says, almost primly.

What will the next act bring for Orlinsky? He is fascinated with the possibilities of the Internet, although his dyslexia makes it difficult for him to find his own Web page. The online version of the Baltimore News has gone from 200 hits a week to 200 hits a day -- an impressive number, but only a fraction of the 57,000 papers.

"If I can upgrade it, within a year maybe it will be 4,000 or 5,000 hits a week," he says, producing a printout from another Web site. "Look, if you can buy lobsters on the Internet, why can't you buy Maryland crabs? I'm working on it."

He seems busy and happy, full of plans.

"I have never had a change in my life that wasn't for the better, and I mean that across the board, although I have had some changes I could have done without," he says. "I've been lucky in having lots of different kinds of lives. I'd like to have at least one more."

Only one?

"You can't plan too far ahead," he says.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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