Lobbying by Norris eases confirmation

Police commissioner won over skeptics by taking case to public

May 10, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

In the end, Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris' willingness to dive into long and contentious public forums night after night won him unanimous approval from a sometimes skeptical City Council.

Though Norris' confirmation by the council was never in doubt, his ability to sell himself and allay the fears of residents apparently made the council's vote Monday night unanimous.

"He brought the police department and headquarters out to the people," Southeast Baltimore City Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. said. "He told the people the facts about how bad crime is in Baltimore City and about the problems in the department."

But Norris also benefited from Council President Sheila Dixon's forceful lobbying of her colleagues and deft political maneuvering by Mayor Martin O'Malley, who repeatedly called holdout representatives and even promised one housing aid for her district in exchange for her vote.

O'Malley also sent out letters to thousands of city residents asking them to call their council representatives to support Norris, the former deputy police commissioner of New York, prompting calls, letters and e-mails to council offices.

For a handful of council members who had opposed Norris, a vote for him at the Monday night meeting became a matter of political survival. The number of constituents urging them to give Norris a chance outweighed the number of detractors.

O'Malley's strong win in last year's mayoral election on a crime-fighting platform continues to resonate.

"It was more important that the city see a united council and that we were not in opposition of the mandate to reduce crime," said Councilwoman Lisa Joi Stancil, a 3rd District Democrat who had been one of Norris' most vocal opponents.

Supporters of O'Malley and Norris were stunned when Stancil and Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, a 2nd District Democrat, supported the mayor's nominee, making the vote unanimous.

Johnson later acknowledged that she changed her mind on the Norris vote after O'Malley assured her that he would back efforts to improve housing in her district.

"The constituents elected me to represent them and bring home the bacon," Johnson said. "If they think I sold them out to bring home the bacon for the district, then so be it."

Both Stancil and Johnson spent the three-week nomination period protesting O'Malley's choice of Norris. By voting with their colleagues, they provided a shutout victory for O'Malley and silenced -- at least for now -- a vocal minority of detractors who fear a rise in police abuses.

Other council members said the city was left with little alternative after O'Malley's first choice, Ronald L. Daniel, resigned in March, 57 days after his council confirmation. Daniel refused to endorse a crime-fighting plan he didn't draft, he said.

Failing to confirm Norris would prolong the search process for the city's third police commissioner in seven months while the number of city homicides is outpacing last year's by 31.

Dixon hammered home the point, regularly calling council members, alerting them about the latest murders and pushing them to back O'Malley's choice for commissioner.

"Not doing something would just put us months behind," Northwest Baltimore Councilwoman Helen Holton said. "In that position, what does it get you to stand out as the one [opponent]?"

Some council members said they couldn't ignore the might of the mayor's office.

Councilman Robert W. Curran, a 3rd District Democrat and O'Malley ally, said the mayor knew he had the votes to confirm Norris, which allowed him the luxury of not having to expend political capital through promises to council members.

But the mayor pushed hard during the last week for a unanimous vote, and council members who isolated themselves on such issues risked paying a price, Curran said.

"That's why I voted for Danny Henson," Curran said of the housing commissioner appointed by former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "I couldn't afford to be shut out of housing issues in the 3rd District."

Norris critics called radio talk shows yesterday, criticizing council members for failing to stand up to the mayor. Council members said the opinions that mattered most were from their constituents.

"Nobody came forward with one single criticism of Norris himself," said 6th District Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, who counted 60 calls to his office for Norris and three against. "It got to the point where the case against him wasn't proven."

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