O'Malley to face citywide scrutiny

First actions to cure Baltimore's woes may get most attention

November 07, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

After his resounding election victory Tuesday, Baltimore Mayor-elect Martin O'Malley faces what might best be described as the agony of victory.

After beating 26 challengers, raising pots of campaign dollars and spending more than four months campaigning every day, O'Malley's reward is being responsible for the city's worst problems.

O'Malley inherits the task of trying to reduce the homicide rate -- now 300 a year -- improving schools considered the worst in the state, helping 60,000 city residents addicted to drugs and trying to cut the city property tax rate, which is two times higher than anywhere else in Maryland.

"I think it's the toughest job in America," said Carol Arscott of Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communication Inc., an Annapolis company that tracked the Baltimore mayoral race. "Everybody is going to be watching."

Although voters granted a unique five-year term to O'Malley by supporting a referendum that will synchronize city and presidential elections beginning in 2004, O'Malley's first steps will be watched most closely.

O'Malley promised during the campaign to remove Cabinet administrators in public works, housing and the Police Department. His choices to serve in those positions will be under the microscope.

His selection for police chief will be the most scrutinized. O'Malley based his candidacy on a promise to cut crime to record lows that other big cities, such as New York and New Orleans, have achieved.

"He's put all his eggs in one basket," said Fred Siegel, an urban expert with the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington. "But it's the right basket."

`What he knows best'

The task won't be easy. The Baltimore Police Department has been historically troubled, with a revolving door of police chiefs and low morale that has appeared to sink lower recently.

In addition to the departure of former Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, which has left a rotating team of leaders, the force is feeling the effects of the shooting Oct. 7 of a black East Baltimore man by a white officer. A former city officer went on trial last week on charges of stealing money from a Hispanic resident.

`A very difficult job'

O'Malley also must deal with clear the logjam of cases in city courts.

"It's what he knows best," Siegel said, pointing to O'Malley's experience as a defense attorney and former prosecutor. "But it's a very difficult job."

With such a resounding general election win, in which he appeared to gain an equal share of Democratic and Republican votes, O'Malley will march into office Dec. 7 with unified city support.

Yet the snipers are waiting for the eight-year councilman to err. That tension is heightened because O'Malley will be a white mayor in a city that is 60 percent African-American.

`Economic empowerment'

Last week, African-American radio talk-show host Larry Young, a former state senator, said O'Malley's real test will be whether he can improve the economic condition of blacks in the city.

Three decades after the height of the nation's civil rights struggle, blacks in Baltimore continue to be more likely than whites to live in poverty. One in five Baltimore residents lives below the federal poverty line of $16,000 a year for a family of four. The most likely to be poor are single black women with children.

"It's good to be exciting," Young said of O'Malley. "But it's about economic empowerment."

`A very delicate path'

O'Malley quickly attempted to allay those concerns Wednesday by introducing a 20-member transition team dominated by African-American men and women whose careers span banking to social services.

The group also contained several former aides to the city's last white mayor, William Donald Schaefer.

"He will have to walk a very delicate path," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who will be stepping down after three terms. "But you have to remember, he has represented a district that is an integrated district.

"If he stays focused on crime, he has a good chance of bringing the community together," Schmoke said.

Local investment

In addition, O'Malley has pledged to create a mayoral office to encourage local banks to invest in struggling neighborhoods. Baltimore ranks in the bottom 20 of cities in which banks have invested in troubled neighborhoods, O'Malley said. And Thursday, he called for local businesses to help the school district add computers.

With 30 days to put his government together, selection of Cabinet directors and policies will accelerate. And longtime government observers say that growing pains are likely.

"You don't transfer a $3 billion company in 30 days without some pain," said city Real Estate Officer Anthony J. Ambridge, who served on the City Council for more than a decade. "Yet Martin clearly understands that there is a difference between campaigning and running a government."

Honeymoon period

So how long will the voters' honeymoon with O'Malley last?

In the wake of the East Baltimore police shooting, O'Malley received criticism for his plan to implement a zero-tolerance law enforcement policy. But his primary and general election wins were so convincing that the momentum could carry O'Malley for some time.

The Progressive Policy Institute's Siegel, who served as a policy director for New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, said O'Malley will determine how long the grace period lasts.

"Giuliani seized the first few incidents to make his point, so he garnered a long honeymoon," Siegel said. "With O'Malley, he is so politically well-connected and there is an absence of any alternative. It is not as if there is some shadow hanging over him."

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