O'Malley's landslide is mandate for change

Transition: New mayor must shape his administration in five weeks before Dec. 8 inauguration.

November 03, 1999

YESTERDAY's landslide victory gives Mayor-elect Martin O'Malley an undisputable mandate for change. He now has to deliver, particularly on his pledge to quickly make Baltimore a less violent city.

In taking over a financially strapped and aging municipality, Mr. O'Malley faces a challenge that will test the limits of his energy and political skills. His self-imposed goal is to stop the flight of residents and businesses that has drained the city's tax base and economic viability.

He has certain advantages:

His resounding victory shows voters have faith in his ability to implement his campaign themes -- reform and inclusiveness.

In his impatience with crime and stagnation, he can make good use of strong African-American allies and advisers who range from state Sen. Joan Carter Conway and Del. Howard P. Rawlings to the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of the influential Bethel AME Church.

In Annapolis, Mr. O'Malley benefits from good relations with Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who is his father-in-law.

Financial uncertainties

Mr. O'Malley confronts plenty of disadvantages as well.

He has to deal with a sizable projected budget deficit in a city where the declining population has already been taxed to the hilt. Meanwhile, he is obligated to honor certain spending commitments -- chiefly in education -- under "maintenance of effort" state laws.

As for Washington, federal policies and aid to cities are likely to change as a result of next year's presidential elections. Whatever happens will be beyond his control.

At home, he will be a white mayor in a city with an African-American majority. His motives, priorities and even-handedness in appointments will be questioned.

This has happened already. Several prominent black ministers, used to wielding influence under Mr. Schmoke, wasted no time in attacking Mr. O'Malley's commitment to zero-tolerance policing. The new mayor can either ignore the ministers, who campaigned against him, or try to win them over.

Sensitivity on trial

Overall, Mr. O'Malley's sensitivities will be on public trial as he implements the crackdown on crime. The harder police work against drug offenses and nuisance crimes, the greater the possibility of a backlash from families whose members are caught in police dragnets.

Mr. O'Malley has no time to waste before the Dec. 8 inauguration. In five weeks, the 36-year-old Mr. O'Malley has to find people he trusts to lead about 40 city agencies. He will undoubtedly keep some holdovers. But he has pledged to bring in his own appointees to key departments, including police, housing and public works. He also has to set priorities, assemble a personal staff and find volunteers to serve on boards and commissions.

The last time a change of this magnitude swept City Hall was in 1987, when Kurt L. Schmoke wanted to make a break with the practices of his predecessors -- Clarence "Du" Burns and William Donald Schaefer. Now it is his time to suffer political rejection as Mr. O'Malley jettisons vestiges of the past 12 years, including many of the 197 city officials who have served at Mr. Schmoke's pleasure.

As Mr. O'Malley starts putting his imprint on local government, he is lucky to be guided by a group of seasoned political advisers. They are headed by Richard O. Berndt, a former operative in the Schaefer City Hall whose law clients include the Catholic Archdio- * cese, and Joseph J. Haskins Jr., president of Harbor Bank of Maryland.

During the interregnum, transition task forces will focus on a dozen policy areas. Their members represent all segments of Baltimore. A lawyer who once was Mr. O'Malley's college roommate is among steering committee members. So are veterans of the Schaefer mayoral administration and doers from philanthropic endeavors.

Not too much should be made of several advisers' past links to Mr. Schaefer. It is true that some of them contributed to Mr. Schaefer's early successes as mayor and were also active in his gubernatorial campaigns. But these movers and shakers also worked for other Democratic politicians, ranging from Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell.

Ultimately, though, the decision making will fall on Mr. O'Malley, a former prosecutor and Celtic folk musician with two CDs among his credits.

Ambition, astuteness

In his public career, Mr. O'Malley has shown ambition, good timing and astuteness and an ability to deal with people with backgrounds different from his own.

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