Northeast Baltimore City Councilman Martin O'Malley will be inaugurated today as Baltimore's 47th mayor, attempting to accomplish what three predecessors struggled to do: stem the exodus of city residents.
For the past eight years, the 36-year-old lawyer has served as the city council's leading rebel to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's administration. But as Schmoke steps down today, after 12 years as the city's first elected black mayor, O'Malley will shoulder responsibility for city woes.
The white Montgomery County native who leads his Irish rock band, "O'Malley's March," will try to reduce city killings to less than 300 a year, stop the net loss of 1,000 city residents a month and keep city streets clean and safe while facing a $130 million projected budget deficit over the next four years.
"I think he'll hit some high notes, and I think he'll sing the blues," said U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who introduced then 23-year-old O'Malley to Baltimore politics when he volunteered for her 1986 congressional campaign. "We're all ready to get behind the O'Malley march."
O'Malley, who will begin a five-year term so city elections can line up with federal polling dates, is banking on the implementation of the so-called zero tolerance policing strategy as his key solution. The former state prosecutor intends to hire the enforcement system's creators -- former New York transit officer Jack Maple and his consulting partner John Linder -- to restructure the city force and change its crime-fighting priorities.
The plan requires police to map crime daily through a computer program that alerts them to problem areas. Officers will be expected to have more interaction with suspected criminals by enforcing nuisance crimes such as public drinking and loitering.
By cracking down on lesser crimes, police hope to snare repeat offenders before they commit more violent crimes. In the past decade, the strategy has helped cut the homicide rate in cities such as New Orleans, Newark, N.J., Philadelphia and New York. The latter watched the number of homicides drop from 2,000 a year to under 700.
"It needs to be a plan that will work in our city and apply one standard of justice to not allow crime in one neighborhood that we would not allow in any other neighborhood," O'Malley said yesterday of his vision for the city.
O'Malley has faced rising criticism over the plan after two unarmed suspects were shot and killed by Baltimore police and housing authority officers. Critics fear the policing policy will lead to more police brutality against residents, particularly black males, in a city that is 65 percent African-American.
"I would like to see us stop using the term `zero tolerance' because of what it signals to the black community," said Bill Goodin, a neighborhood activist from O'Malley's council district.
O'Malley has pledged to be equally vigilant in "policing our own police" and has strong support from the city's 3,400-member Fraternal Order of Police union.
"There is a tremendous amount of excitement," FOP President Gary McLhinney said. "It's truly a new era in the Baltimore Police Department."
`I'll do it'
O'Malley also will be watched closely because of his youth. At 36, he joins Schmoke, who was elected at 37, as one of the city's youngest mayors, fueling fears that he will be spun by veteran behind-the-scenes political powers hoping to gain access to city government.
Last week, O'Malley said that despite creating extensive committees of advisers, he will make the tough calls in city government, including picking a new police commissioner.
"I'm the mayor, I'll do it, I'll do it as soon as possible," O'Malley said.
Running on a platform of "change and reform," O'Malley joined the mayor's race two weeks before the filing deadline and relied on campaign contributions from downtown business interests and allies of former Mayor William Donald Schaefer to help raise more than $1.2 million in five months.
Those who have worked closely with O'Malley believe he can fend off those seeking political return in a city with 16,000 employees and a $1.8 billion budget.
"I have a new nickname for him -- `Stretch' -- because he's being pulled in every direction," said city Real Estate Officer Anthony J. Ambridge, who sat next to O'Malley on the council. "He knows enough to ask questions, to listen and sort it out and always seems to go in the right direction."
During his month of transition, O'Malley has appeared frustrated by the task before him. He has spent much of last month meeting with advisers who are trying to help him compile the government that will take Baltimore into a new century.
"I realize there is a reason for all the staff," O'Malley said before walking into his final city council meeting last night. "Just to deal with the bottle neck of people who want to get to you."