A new office, a new life

Nearly three months into the job, Martin O'Malley finds that, for the most part, it's good to be the mayor

February 27, 2000

SHORTLY AFTER Martin OMalley was elected mayor, he opened the desk drawer in his office and discovered a note from his predecessor, Kurt L. Schmoke.

The note said: Please remember the truth set forward in Psalm 127: Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.'"

OMalley was puzzled and perplexed by Schmokes message, with its deep, foreboding overtones. Baltimores new mayor prefers a more optimistic message: God helps those who help themselves.

The mayors office has changed since this former councilman took over in December. Sunshine pours through office windows that Schmoke kept shuttered, and music plays softly in the background as OMalley goes about the business of being mayor.

While Schmoke was stiff and formal, OMalley is loose and candid. Baltimores new mayor clearly enjoys the Robert Kennedy look -- shirt collar unbuttoned, tie pulled loose and shirt sleeves rolled up.

Recently, OMalley rankled members of Marylands judiciary by urging state lawmakers to withhold almost $9 million in state funding for the city courts until the judges cooperate more on reform efforts.

In the late afternoon of a grueling work day filled with meetings and city business, OMalley spoke with Perspective Editor Mike Adams about the mayors crusade to make the city safer and about how being mayor has changed his life.

Look five years into the future. Your first term has ended. What will people say about you? What would you want them to say?

I'd want them to say I tackled problems head on, that I did not sugarcoat anything, that I told people the truth and that I woke up the city and got us to face our biggest problem, which is the double standard of justice that exists around drug trafficking, these open-air drug markets and the death and the violence that is bringing us down as a people and a city.

I hope that five years from now, people will look back on my administration and say thats when we came together as a city and turned it around and started growing again. And it all began with recognizing that 300 homicides a year is not acceptable.

Recently, I spoke to one of the top Democrats in the mayors race, and hes convinced that he lost because city residents -- black and white -- were fed up with Kurt Schmoke and did not want to elect another black mayor. Do you think thats an accurate assessment?

No, I dont think thats an accurate assessment. I dont think people were making their decision in this last election based primarily on race or skin color.

I think what people wanted was a change, and I think people wanted a candidate who could articulate a message of change and reform that held public safety up as the No. 1 target.

I think people were looking for a change from the last 12 years. But I dont think it was primarily race based. I think that if perhaps one of the other candidates had been articulating that message of change and reform, there would not have been enough oxygen for my candidacy that late in the game. But the fact is, neither of them was.

What do you see as the problem with 12 years of Kurt Schmoke

I think we had a real self-defeating attitude toward public safety and what law enforcement and human beings can do about public safety. In high school, the Jesuits taught me that expectations become behavior. We were expected not to be able to do anything about drug violence until drugs were legalized. And we failed, because we were expecting to fail.

Mayor Schmoke and his wife could not have been kinder to me and Katie [OMalleys wife] during the whole transition process. We had some knockdown drag-outs [when OMalley was a councilman], but he was always a gentleman, and I have a great deal of respect for him, and I think he believes sincerely that when he started advocating for medicalization or decriminalization or whatever it was, I think he believed sincerely that that was the way to go. But as New York, and Boston and New Orleans started showing [with tougher policing], that wasnt the way to go, but we just couldnt let go of that.

I think we stuck too doggedly to [drug decriminalization], and it made us miss the economic wave that was lifting every other city in recent years.

I think [Schmoke] had a limited view of what government was capable of accomplishing.

Recently, you urged legislators to withhold money for the city courts until judges unclog what you call a dysfunctional system. What, if any, reaction have you gotten?

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