Parting advice for the new mayor

O'Malley: There's no shortage of counsel from his predecessors on what it takes to lead Baltimore.

The Schmoke Legacy

November 23, 1999

EVERY new mayor benefits from his or her predecessors' achievements -- or is penalized because of their mistakes.

In 1971, when William Donald Schaefer became the city's chief executive, a number of projects were under way that would bring him international recognition. Theodore R. McKeldin had outlined the vision for a new Inner Harbor nearly a decade earlier and started land acquisition. Thomas J. D'Alesandro III had launched pivotal urban renewal programs.

Martin O'Malley, too, is likely to profit from works in progress left behind by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- if they go ahead.

These include:

The long-overdue revitalization advancing on the west side of downtown. It will link Charles Center and the once-thriving Howard Street retail district with the University of Maryland campus.

Demolition of public housing high-rises, which has opened opportunities to redevelop several residential neighborhoods on the fringes of downtown. That, combined with the conversion of old office buildings into apartments, could bring life and vitality to the heart of the city.

Expansion of Inner Harbor tourism with the construction of hotels and shopping areas south of Little Italy and along Key Highway.

A new mayor needs to avoid obvious pitfalls, though.

No matter how urgent Mr. O'Malley's campaign priorities may be -- such as zero tolerance policing -- his first task must be gaining control of the city's budget and its ponderous bureaucracy.

From the moment he takes office, entrenched bureaucrats will test his leadership and resolve. He needs to make a substantive, dramatic and unequivocal demonstration of his authority. Unless he does so, the bureaucracy will invent ways to circumvent and marginalize him.

Mr. Schmoke, by and large, failed to put his foot down early on. He never recovered. Instead of the mayor setting the agenda and timetable, recalcitrant bureaucrats often did whatever they pleased.

Things might have turned out differently if Mr. Schmoke had enjoyed the benefits of the kind of detailed and orderly transition he is providing for Mr. O'Malley.

After his 1987 victory, Mr. Schmoke sought advice from his primary election rival, Clarence H. "Du" Burns, who served the final year of the mayoralty after William Donald Schaefer became governor. But Mr. Schaefer refused to give Mr. Schmoke any pointers or insights from his four terms as the city's chief executive.

He had not paid his dues, Mr. Schaefer felt, nor had he impressed. Mr. Schmoke, as state's attorney, had been included in Cabinet meetings. But Mr. Schaefer found him so inattentive the "young man" was disinvited.

Mr. Schaefer had not aggressively campaigned for Mr. Burns, yet the East Baltimore politician was his candidate. After Mr. Schmoke's unexpectedly narrow win, Mr. Schaefer's only piece of advice to the new mayor -- which was delivered through an intermediary -- was paltry: When it rains hard, debris from the Jones Falls backs up in the harbor.

In 1971, when Mr. Schaefer was first elected mayor, he could depend on the cooperation of several previous mayors. But with his experience as a councilman and City Council president, he did not need much mentoring. Certain things he knew instinctively.

`Don't cross me'

When he took charge, Mr. Schaefer convened a meeting of top city officials and gave them an ultimatum: If you do your job, you have nothing to fear. "But don't cross me."

He quickly sent a message that he meant business by firing an employee he thought had defied him.

Having promised voters a safer city, Mr. O'Malley must not lose that focus. But he will be forced to broaden his agenda under the pressure of many serious problems. Particularly early on, when he is establishing his image, the new mayor needs to let Baltimoreans know that he is moving creatively and purposefully.

Schaefer's rules

Mr. O'Malley could do worse than take a page from Mr. Schaefer, who had far more experience in city government before he became mayor. Some of his rules:

1. Take care of the little things. Get the trash picked up, trim the trees, address noise and vandalism that drive taxpayers berserk.

2. Start. Even if you don't know exactly what you are going to do in all these areas, do something. Also, beware of planners. They want to plan and study. And plan and study some more. That is not action.

3. Do not set priorities. Everything is critical.

4. Follow up. Put one of your best people in charge of follow-up -- to see, for example, that assigned tasks have begun. You are dealing with human beings (and bureaucrats). They need constant prompting and monitoring.

5. Build strength. Build on strength. If neighborhood groups or business organizations want something from the city, never simply give in to demands, which tend to multiply with every concession. Get something in return.

6. Demand ideas. Leadership is finding talented people and showing them that their ideas will be tried.

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