O'Malley learning about role as city father

March 28, 2000|By Michael Olesker

Yesterday morning, the mayor of Baltimore arose and picked up his daily newspaper, where he saw that six people had been shot in his city, three of them fatally. In an era of 300 annual homicides, this was regarded as a routine trauma. Then the mayor's daughter Grace, the 8-year-old, added to the morning's trouble. Her parents had lost her report card. This was regarded merely as catastrophe.

"Now, Grace," said the mayor, "it won't be the first time a report card has been lost."

"No," said Grace, "but it'll be the second time you've lost mine."

To the list of classic student excuses ("The dog ate my homework") we will now add a new entry: "The mayor lost my report card."

He was, perhaps, otherwise distracted. Martin O'Malley is the father of three, but also the young father-figure to a city trying to be reborn once again. The news from Baltimore's bustling waterfront neighborhoods makes people begin to leap into the air. Downtown business development is throbbing, and now there is much talk of a dramatic surge in computer-related enterprises.

But the morning paper carries six more shootings, three more people dead, and this mayor has to balance all of these things, plus a little girl wondering why her parents keep losing her report cards.

Over breakfast yesterday, the mayor did a little arithmetic in his head. Three homicides Sunday -- and another early Monday morning -- bring the year's total past 60.

"Over three months," he said. "Multiply by four, it takes us near 250 for the whole year. Of course, last year, the fall and winter were real heavy." He shook his head grimly. "I think the murder rate will get worse before it gets better."

He has been saying this for some time. He has vowed to clean up the drug corners, knowing there are dealers out there doing business long enough to establish squatter's rights. He also knows that the vast majority of the city's killings come out of that drug trafficking, one thug killing another.

"Is this a bad thing?" the mayor was asked. "Bad guys killing each other?"

"Yeah," he said, "because, before they're drug traffickers, they're human beings, and they used to be children. If we numb ourselves to their humanity, we're in big trouble.

"You know, the previous police commissioner was on one of the radio talk shows last year, and a woman asked him about drugs and violence, and he said, 'Where do you live?' She said, 'Mount Washington.' He said, 'Well, you live in a great neighborhood, I wouldn't worry about it.'

"But we can't think of it that way," O'Malley said, "because the problem is all of ours."

Yes, but ...

The mayor is the leader of municipal government, but also the front man for a state of mind. Thirty years ago, in a ruinous hour, William Donald Schaefer declared, "Baltimore is best" when all evidence declared otherwise. But he said it often enough, and forcefully enough, that he gave the city a decade of daylight.

This mayor has to strike a similar balance: while focusing on crime, not belaboring it so consistently that it remains the chief public perception of an entire metropolis. In fact, O'Malley said yesterday, Schaefer told him some weeks ago, "You may have already accomplished the most important thing -- making people believe the city's coming back."

It happens with feel-good basics -- last week's high-profile neighborhood cleanup, for example. But the upbeat message requires reinforcement, and diversity: Look at these new businesses! Look at these young people returning to city neighborhoods!

Yes, O'Malley said -- but ...

"It was the first thing I read this morning," the mayor said yesterday. He meant the three homicides in the newspaper. He sat at a little corner table at Cafe Hon, in rejuvenated Hampden. "There is nothing more important right now. I mean, I'm finding out you go to a lot more funerals when you're mayor."

It is the thing that moves him when he goes to Annapolis these days to argue for state money. This governor has his own set of priorities. Weeks ago, O'Malley clipped a newspaper photo of children outside a drug-inflicted school playground, framed it, and sent it to Parris Glendening with a note.

"This is why I've asked you for drug treatment money," the note said.

In the closing two weeks of this year's General Assembly, O'Malley awaits the outcome of budget decisions -- and of so-called Safe Gun legislation.

"A big one," he said yesterday. "This one matters."

The morning paper headlined three more homicides from the previous day, and in the early morning there was one more dead. The mayor had sent one of his children off to school minus her report card, which was upsetting in its little way, but he is finding out, in profound ways, that an extended city family turns to him as its young father figure.

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