Electing a mayor with vigor and vision

Hopeful signs: Baltimore's widely criticized crop of candidates may yet yield a leader.

July 29, 1999

FOR GOOD and sufficient reasons, this year's crop of candidates for mayor of Baltimore was disparaged months ago in the harshest terms. Civic leaders tried to recruit a star replacement. Their effort failed, and the city must now come to terms with its choices.

That chore may not be as frightening as some had thought.

Even with more than 20 candidates in the field, the campaign process is beginning to show which contenders have talent and potential for growth. Differences in policy, style and substance are beginning to emerge, though much more detail is needed from men and women who claim they can run a $1.8 billion city.

A forum at the Johns Hopkins University's Shriver Hall on Tuesday evening allowed the contenders to explain their views on education, crime, job development, poverty and race.

There is little disagreement on the problems -- but, at this point, still too little in the way of new approaches.

The leading candidates say new leadership is needed in the city Police Department.

They promise a more dynamic style of mayoral leadership across the board.

Nearly all the candidates want smaller class sizes in the city schools.

And they agree that better education and a lower crime rate are essential to attracting new business.

The range of solutions they proposed, though, was overly broad and laced together by platitudes. Many candidates did a better job of showing how they share the citizens' pain than of proposing ways to alleviate it.

Independent Terry Thometz said the city school system should be closed down for six months while fundamental questions are raised and debated and answered. The system, she said, resembles a plane crash with 108,000 passengers.

Democrat Carl Stokes, a former city councilman and school board member, asserted his determination to reduce class size and called for a massive infusion of city dollars into school coffers.

But Mr. Stokes did not say where he would find the necessary money in a city budget that faces a projected $150 million deficit over the next five years.

Councilman Martin J. O'Malley said many school system problems are traceable to the rampant misdiagnosis of special learning problems -- an error that has drained precious financial resources. He reiterated his plan to provide more preschool education -- and said he would insist upon summer school for students who can't read by the third grade.

Register of Wills Mary W. Conaway said she would pay teachers at least as much as their peers in surrounding school districts -- without saying where the money would be found.

After first passing on the question, City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III cautioned that the city cannot afford steep reductions in class size. He urged his competitors to understand that a mayor has less power over schools than many assume.

Mr. Stokes chided Mr. Bell for throwing up his hands and abdicating responsibility to "kick butt."

Mr. Bell, when asked how he would change the structure of city government, said he favors hiring a chief operating officer or city manager.

Mr. O'Malley said no amount of rearranging would matter -- nor would reforms be affordable -- if the city continues to lose 12,000 residents a year.

He said he would attempt to recruit banks to supply the investments envisioned by the federal Community Reinvestment Act.

The debate has just begun.

But based on Tuesday's forum and other recent events, citizens can now hope to see and hear a serious discussion of their problems this summer.

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