State hopes O'Malley can put its money where his mouth is

January 16, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AT HIS news conference Thursday morning, Mayor Martin O'Malley, facing consuming problems with crime, with money, with schools and suburban migration and -- aw, you know the list by now -- was naturally asked a question by one of our deep thinkers from radio broadcasting about Hillary Rodham Clinton and gay marriages.

This followed questions, from the same radio voice, about the 6-year-old Cuban boy separated from his father and the political instincts of J. C. Watts, the U.S. congressman from Oklahoma.

O'Malley politely answered the first two questions, avoiding the easy dodge that they were slightly out of his precinct.

Then came the one about the New York race for U.S. Senate, and Hillary Clinton's endorsement of the legality of gay marriages. Did O'Malley approve of gay marriages, the radio reporter earnestly inquired.

"I tell you," the mayor sighed, "I have a hard enough problem keeping my own marriage together."

Against a splash of appreciative laughter, he added, "I don't see her [his wife] till 10 or 11 o'clock at night."

The mayor is a busy man who works long hours. Maybe not as long as George Balog or Daniel P. Henson, the devoted public servants who bequeathed themselves breathtaking going-away financial packages, but long enough.

(In case you missed it, outgoing Public Works Director Balog computed time lost to vacations and personal leave over the course of his career, and granted himself roughly $141,000. Ex-Housing Director Henson, bowing out with his customary, in-your-eye sense of grace, computed his personal take at about $43,000.)

On Wednesday, the day before his news conference, O'Malley went to Annapolis.

This is where the money is. The state's coffers are bulging with a $1 billion surplus, and Baltimore was broke even before Balog and Henson ransacked the place as they slipped out the back door.

"There must be a lot of money," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller told a colleague on the General Assembly's opening day, referring to the surplus. "Every county executive in the state showed up."

All with hands out.

Among mayors of Baltimore, there is a lengthening and unfortunate history of going to Annapolis with palms up and desperation in the eyes. Alms for the poor, they cry.

Also, there is a history of the state handing over money -- usually with reluctance, but ultimately with the understanding that if Baltimore were to go under, the state would take its own dive -- but then suffering buyer's remorse.

There is sometimes a muttered resentment in the state Capitol about money and Baltimore.

We don't mind sending it there, legislators from the 'burbs say. We just wonder why there's so little to show for it.

State legislators aren't alone. In 1994, Washington OK'd $100 million in so-called Empowerment Zone money for Baltimore. Here we are, more than five years later, and the city still hasn't figured out how to spend $72 million of it.

The good news: At least they haven't blown it on something stupid yet.

The bad news: Why haven't they spent it? They can't find any problem areas in the city?

At his news conference Thursday, O'Malley was asked about the mood in Annapolis. Did he get the impression, he was asked, that legislators are tired of sending money to Baltimore and wondering why results are sometimes difficult to spot?

"Not at all," he said. "We're not looking for handouts, but partnerships.

"They know it's a shrinking city. They know the schools are floundering. We're setting clear goals. We have to show them that. They want investments. They want partnerships that work.

"We want $50 million more for the schools, which are stable now. We're specific in what we want: money for pre-K programs, training for teachers, more arts. We want more drug-treatment money. The legislators are not saying, `Enough is enough.'

"In fact," O'Malley said, "the mayors of Annapolis, Frederick and Ocean City want to send [public works] trucks to Baltimore when we do our big spring cleaning. I think everybody feels the money they've been sending here is gonna begin to start paying dividends. For the whole state. There's an atmosphere through the state that the city is turning things around."

Outside City Hall Thursday, as O'Malley rushed off to another appointment, he said that Senate President Miller gave him considerable hope in Annapolis.

"He told me he liked the campaign we ran, and the message that there's more that brings us together than separates us," O'Malley said.

The point is well taken.

This mayor understands the city's diversity, and the need to reflect it in government. There's a mix of races and religions.

And, for what it's worth to that radio reporter, gays and straights, too.

Don't ask, don't tell?

Nah. Don't care.

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