Schaeferian style is ideal for Mayor O'Malley

October 31, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

COME Wednesday, Martin O'Malley puts on a different hat. No longer will he be a legislator or political campaigner or Irish band leader. He'll be mayor-elect.

Running a successful political campaign is one thing; learning to run a troubled city is quite another.

Mr. O'Malley will start with considerable momentum but with some formidable obstacles.

There's a determined bloc of activists who would like to see the next mayor fail. They backed his Democratic primary opponents and stand to lose influence in an O'Malley administration.

Then there are those who don't want a white mayor in a majority-black city. They will always find fault with Mayor O'Malley.

There are the professional protesters, too, who will seek to embarrass the new mayor. Look no further than those loudly protesting the police shooting of Larry J. Hubbard, demanding instant justice on their terms.

Mr. O'Malley's biggest obstacle, though, may be his inexperience. Yes, he has served on the City Council for eight years, but he has never managed a staff of 16,000.

If he is smart, he'll turn to some old hands from the Schaefer years for guidance. He could do a lot worse. Good management and good customer service were hallmarks of William Donald Schaefer's 15 years as mayor.

Another big question is whether Mr. O'Malley will insist on playing Superman -- doing it all himself. He has refused to consider hiring a city manager, even though every big county in this region has the equivalent of an appointed chief operating officer. He insists the mayor can run the city himself.

He'll soon change his mind. He will need, at a minimum, a strong chief of staff and quality Cabinet officials. The mayor shouldn't have to worry about day-to-day details. He needs to focus on big-picture problems.

Problem No. 1 is crime and violence. That has been true since the time Mr. O'Malley pondered entering the race for mayor.

A private poll conducted for him by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. in early June noted, quite accurately, that "the good news is that your crime message plays very well with voters across the board . . . in all sections of the city."

Public polls conducted by Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications Inc. showed an overriding public demand for cracking down on crime.

Zero-tolerance effort

That means not only hiring an aggressive police chief, but also finding money for extensive police training to reduce excessive use of force. It means strong and consistent support for law-enforcement efforts and a get-tough policy with those who break the law.

It means re-ordering city budgets to free up money for the Police Department and the city State's Attorney's Office. It means a concerted effort to win state support for a major anti-crime drive. And it means using the mayor's bully pulpit to galvanize the city's constituencies behind this crusade.

Mr. O'Malley must be the catalyst. He'll also have to be the one who relentlessly pushes reluctant public officials and bureaucrats.

Unlike Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Mr. O'Malley should ask business leaders to help shape his administration. He should accept any pro bono offers. A great place to start would be with a comprehensive management audit of city government.

Similarly, Mr. O'Malley should take the lead in forming partnerships with county leaders. Mr. Schmoke gained a reputation for making promises to county leaders but never following through. There's a gold mine of opportunity for the new mayor if he makes a persuasive case for cooperative programs that would help both city and county residents.

Government shake-up

The biggest positive for the next mayor is the desire of Baltimoreans for decisive leadership. He won a plurality of votes in the Democratic primary, which should provide a strong base of support when he starts shaking up a lethargic city government.

He also has good models in other cities that have been revived, including Philadelphia, New York, Indianapolis and Milwaukee.

Another big plus is the willingness of former Mayor (and Governor) Schaefer to point Mr. O'Malley in the right direction. He knows better than anyone what it takes to motivate city residents and make them once again feel good about their community.

City voters on Tuesday will cast their lot with Martin O'Malley. He's young, attractive and energetic. He's sincere in wanting to transform Baltimore. But can he deliver on his promises? Can he fulfill the potential so many city voters see in him?

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

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