O'Malley has mandate to be bold

In the mayoral contest, race turned out to be more of a fixation for politicians than for voters. The electorate proved far wiser than political activists, who insisted race could be decisive.

September 19, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

CAN a white politician be elected Baltimore's next mayor? I asked that question in a late June column, and concluded that the odds were "strongly against" it happening.

"At this stage," I pontificated, Martin O'Malley's run for the top city job "looks quixotic."

I stand corrected.

Mr. O'Malley proved the doubters wrong: A white can be elected mayor of majority-black Baltimore. (In this overwhelmingly Democratic city, the November election is a formality.)

He entered the campaign late, as a secondary candidate. City Council President Lawrence Bell had name recognition and a huge lead in fund raising; Carl Stokes had been campaigning for the job since December.

But Mr. O'Malley knew what he was doing. He ran one of the most brilliant political operations this state has seen in decades.

He was underestimated from the start. We should have been paying attention to what the O'Malley family had been up to.

Last year, Mr. O'Malley managed the campaign of his brother-in-law, J. Joseph "Max" Curran III, who faced an uphill race for a House of Delegates seat in Parkville in Baltimore County.

It was a superb effort from Mr. O'Malley, who masterminded every detail. Mr. Curran won the Democratic primary and came within 118 votes of unseating an incumbent Republican -- even though Mr. Curran had been kept off the ticket of Democratic Sen. Thomas Bromwell, who had cut a deal with Republican delegates to assure his own preservation.

Meanwhile, one of Mr. O'Malley's brothers, Peter, managed the campaign of their father, who upset the favorite in the Republican primary for Montgomery County state's attorney last year. Had the unpopular incumbent Democratic state's attorney, Robert Dean, survived his own primary challenge -- he didn't -- Thomas O'Malley's strategy for victory last November probably would have worked.

Incisive political calculations must run deep in the O'Malley clan. Martin O'Malley shocked nearly everyone when he first ran for office, losing by just 44 votes to state Sen. John Pica in Northeast Baltimore. Mr. O'Malley sensed a waning of Mr. Pica's popularity, just as he sensed last year that incumbent delegates in Parkville might be vulnerable, just as his father sensed a weak incumbent state's attorney could be beaten in Montgomery County.

Lackluster competition

A similarly astute analysis prompted Martin O'Malley to defy the initial odds and enter the race for mayor. He sensed an opening: Two undistinguished black candidates splitting their core base of supporters, leaving room for a third challenger.

Early polling by Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications Inc. told him how to win: The key issue was crime. That became Mr. O'Malley's theme song, just as it had been in his eight years on the City Council.

Second, the poll showed that black voters -- by a lopsided margin -- wanted new leadership after 12 years of the lethargic Schmoke administration. Mr. O'Malley's campaign slogan, "For Change, For Reform" epitomized a summer-long effort to position himself as the most forceful agent of change.

It shouldn't have stunned us that on primary Election Day, black Democrats in large numbers voted for Mr. O'Malley.

Neither Mr. Bell nor Mr. Stokes inspired much confidence. Mr. O'Malley knew them well from their years together on the City Council. He knew their electoral weak spots: Mr. Bell had never established a base beyond West Baltimore and Mr. Stokes' support faded outside his East Baltimore stronghold.

Mr. O'Malley's prior work as a field organizer for presidential and U.S. Senate candidates gave him campaign expertise. He aired superb television and radio commercials. They were crystal clear, leaving voters with a sharp image of Mr. O'Malley as a polite, attractive, energetic and determined candidate focused like a laser on reducing crime.

He also found a way to vividly communicate in just a few words what he stood for: "Get the drug dealers off our street corners."

No other candidate had such a concise, pointed and powerful message.

He never went negative in his campaign. When dirt was thrown at him, he ignored it, sticking to his anti-crime message.

In the first televised debate, Mr. O'Malley tossed softball questions at the other two candidates. Why? He wanted to avoid looking negative or racially insensitive.

Mr. O'Malley bridged the racial divide in this city. The support of two important black leaders, the Rev. Frank M. Reid and Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, and the vocal backing of a white leader respected citywide -- former mayor and governor William Donald Schaefer -- proved crucial. These endorsements gave voters a comfort level in backing Mr. O'Malley.

In the mayoral contest, race turned out to be more of a fixation for politicians than for voters. The electorate proved far wiser than political activists, who insisted race could be decisive.

It wasn't. Voters chose not on the basis of skin color but on the basis of competence. The stunning size of Mr. O'Malley's victory gives him a mandate to be bold.

Voters clearly want a mayor who can jump-start a stalled city government, disconnect the old b'hoys network of the Schmoke era, crack down on crime and grime, revive neighborhoods and revive the sense of pride Baltimoreans remember from the Schaefer years.

`Do it now' approach

Mr. O'Malley probably will adopt some Schaefer techniques -- using the mayor's office as a bully pulpit, demanding results from resistant bureaucrats, working his connections in Annapolis to win financial assistance, and energizing local citizens. But it will be a more youthful, highly organized and tightly managed administration.

He's a bright new star on the Maryland political horizon. He's got ambition, brains, charisma and superb political skills. Other white mayors have turned around depressed urban centers in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and now in Oakland, Calif.

Martin O'Malley is about to try to add Baltimore to that list.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

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