Mayor makes mark, as vowed

But long-term impact of O'Malley's style is subject of concern

March 12, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley's brash fighting style in demanding court reforms from district judges -- using mocking stick figures and terms like "throw up" -- doesn't shock longtime O'Malley observers.

They watched Councilman O'Malley employ the same throw-gasoline-on-the-raging-fire zeal in his demand for police reforms.

O'Malley took on then-police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier even as Frazier seemed to be winning part of the war on crime, accusing him of intentionally misleading the public with false shooting statistics. O'Malley won that bitter fight -- audits showed the drop in shootings was 30 percent less than the department claimed -- and his win in the primary election helped spur Frazier's departure.

"He's like a pit bull," said Gary McLhinney, president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police. "If he gets ahold of you, he's not going to let go until you give up. The more you fight, the harder he bites."

On Friday -- St. Patrick's Day -- O'Malley will have been Baltimore's mayor for 100 days. And although debate will continue over his political tactics, no one argues that the 37-year-old mayor, who moonlights as leader of an Irish rock band, hasn't fulfilled his pledge to shake up city government.

"He makes you want to stand and cheer," said Carol Arscott, a former Republican activist who now operates a political consulting firm that tracked the mayor's race.

The long-term impact of O'Malley's methods is another issue. Even though criminal justice officials agreed to a court reform plan last week -- which the mayor could claim as a victory -- some people see trouble ahead for O'Malley. They warn that bombastic ways that may have worked in the City Council won't necessarily play out in the larger arena of Maryland politics.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the House Appropriations chairman and one of O'Malley's chief supporters, said while he appreciates the mayor's impatience, his confrontational style isn't the sole way to achieve results.

O'Malley appeared before Rawlings' committee early in the session, insisting that it delay state funding for court reforms until his demands were met, later telling legislators that the judges' claim of progress "makes me throw up." The committee approved the funds, with a between-the-lines message to the mayor that he's not the only player.

"We are the ones who released the funds," Rawlings said. "We are the ones who are going to have to fund a budget. He has been an important catalyst, but we are going to achieve this goal with or without him."

But with his political future now tied to his pledge to reduce city crime, O'Malley has no qualms about pulling everyone from Rawlings to Gov. Parris N. Glendening into the fight and holding them accountable to the public.

By labeling District Court Chief Judge Martha Rasin an "obstructionist," he dragged the court leader and fellow judges -- who are elected to 10- to 15-year terms and operate in relative anonymity -- into the spotlight.

"He's put a face to these people who never had faces before," McLhinney said. "Now people know who they are. Nobody could pick Judge Rasin out on the street before. They can now."

O'Malley has public opinion on his side, which can be to a persistent politician what the presence of blood is to a shark.

"He has a great sense of politics as theater," Western Maryland College Professor Herb Smith said of O'Malley's first months in office. "And he's got a winning hand with this [issue]."

If you're an O'Malley target, life can become pretty miserable. Rasin fired back, accusing the mayor of immaturity by calling his Annapolis testimony "a tantrum." Some observers of Maryland politics question whether the moves are responsible or fair, empathizing with the judges and likening O'Malley's actions to chasing a gnat with a chain saw.

"He makes more trouble for himself sometimes by being a little more aggressive than he needs to be and a little less conciliatory," said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor. "It's a tactic that can backfire. Sometimes, [opponents] can react by blowing you up."

Northwest Baltimore City Councilwoman Helen Holton understands the frustration of judges and state legislators not accustomed to O'Malley's steamrolling ways. Many liken his style to that of former mayor and Gov. William Donald Schaefer, whose political mantra was once described by a loyalist as "ready, fire, aim."

"It can be frustrating for others who have seen the mayor in his more polished campaign position," Holton said. "In a big arena, it may appear to be flip, but he is fully aware of what he's doing. When he believes in something, he is very passionate and he will convey the message in a way best understood by the most amount of people."

O'Malley, welcoming the court reform agreement, said he had no regrets over the tactics he employed.

"The point is that we have accomplished the goal to establish priorities in the criminal justice system," O'Malley said.

O'Malley's assertiveness is felt by many, not just the judges.

Recently, the mayor said he requested that the Walters Art Gallery provide paintings for his office. Museum officials objected, worried about the security and condition of the pieces in the uncontrolled climate, O'Malley said.

The mayor reminded them that the works technically belong to the mayor, City Council and citizens of Baltimore.

The paintings now hang in the mayor's office.

Sun staff writer Caitlin Francke contributed to this article.

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