O'Malley can go long way in city with long way to go

This Just In...

Election 1999

November 03, 1999|By DAN RODRICKS

MEMO TO THE O Man: We didn't vote for a city manager yesterday. We voted for a mayor. The subject is leadership. That's what we want from you, Martin O'Malley -- that thing called leadership. And energy. And enthusiasm. And confidence (not arrogance). And courage. All those grandiose-sounding things they write about in those dare-to-be-great self-help books. We don't need a policy wonk. We don't need a tinkerer. We need a big-picture guy with the common touch.

We need someone with passion, for a change.

The new mayor could get angry once in a while, too. It would be appreciated.

Martin O'Malley has a lot going for him -- starting with the fact he doesn't have a hard act to follow. Let's face it. Replacing Kurt Schmoke as mayor is not exactly like replacing Cal Ripken at third. Everywhere I go in this town, all kinds of people express an anxiousness to get on with projects and improvements, to see the city move forward, led by a mayor with some vigor and daring.

Can we have the Second Baltimore Renaissance now?

It's about a decade overdue.

Then again, it's already happening -- sort of. Which is another thing O'Malley has going for him. Time magazine this summer described a declining, dysfunctional and drug-addicted city, leaving all the good stuff out. That's not some warmed-over William Donald Schaefer Baltimore-is-Best bunk. That's the truth. There are a lot of good things happening in pockets of this city. Even crime is falling.

It's not like O'Malley is rebuilding Dresden.

But there's a lot of work to do -- huge, daunting stuff -- and it would be nice if the mayor got involved in it, for a change. O'Malley frequently allows himself to be photographed with shirt sleeves rolled up and tie askew. That's a good image. Keep it.

Speaking of image, did I mention that it would be nice if the mayor had one? If O'Malley doesn't want to dress up in silly outfits -- as a certain former mayor once did -- that's fine with me. But O'Malley shouldn't be afraid of doing some symbolic things to pump up community spirits. He has the charisma to pull it off. A mayor has to be a cheerleader. I'd like to see him launch some civic crusades like the ones we used to have during the Schaefer years -- Trash Bash and others we ridiculed as corny but knew were important to a city's self-image. I think I heard O'Malley say something about Baltimore being the best city in America. I hope he keeps saying that. Maybe we'll believe it again.

Another thing O'Malley has going for him: He didn't parachute into Baltimore politics. He had two terms as a city councilman and got to hear a lot of citizen complaints along the way. Just yesterday, one of his constituents in Northeast Baltimore told me what a swell job O'Malley did getting rid of rats in her neighborhood a few years ago.

As he goes citywide, O'Malley needs to trust his street-level political instincts. To keep them sharp, he needs to stay plugged in. He needs to keep listening -- and not just to an inner circle. He should attend a different community meeting every week, with members of the City Council. He should ask a radio station in the city -- maybe WJHU or WOLB -- to give him an hour a week to field calls from constituents.


O'Malley has a plan to rid the streets of drug dealers. Fine. But he should also maintain the city's commitment to helping addicts end the demand that creates the supply that creates the crime.

Here's another strategy for neighborhoods: Get a map. Put it on a wall in your office. On the map identify city neighborhoods by these descriptions: stable, stressed and under siege.

After you finish gulping, keep your courage, then do what needs to be done. You need to assure stable neighborhoods that they'll stay that way. You -- that means the mayor's office, the Police Department, housing officials, the public works guys, the local school principal -- need to help the stressed become stable, and you need to move the under siege up a peg. It can be done, block by block.

Look at what the Patterson Park Community Development Corp. is doing in East Baltimore, door to door, block by block, fixing up houses, moving stability ever so gradually north of East Baltimore Street. You don't launch an attack in the middle of a blighted neighborhood; you surround it, build toward it and eventually eliminate it.

The same could happen in the Barclay community. That's where a police officer shot Larry Hubbard a few weeks ago. That neighborhood appears to be right on the border of "stressed" and "under siege." Yesterday, I saw some little kid's school-made Halloween decorations in the window of a nice rowhouse right next to a rowhouse that was boarded up. There's life there; there's hope. A mayor can make a difference in a neighborhood like that. He can draw a line. He can say, "OK, no more abandonment here, no more demolition. This neighborhood is stressed, but we're taking it to stable."

O'Malley should take that pitch to Barclay as soon as possible.

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