Political feud costs Ambridge his position

January 14, 2001|By Gregory Kane

LET'S ASSUME for the moment that Anthony J. Ambridge, the canned city real estate officer better known as "Tony" to those who respect and like him, is black.

Let's assume that city Comptroller Joan Pratt is white. Let's assume further that the black Ambridge had worked as real estate officer for four years, had saved the city $8 million and had previously served 12 years as an effective city councilman. Finally, let's assume that a week ago Friday, the white Pratt abruptly fired the black Ambridge - and replaced him with a guy who once had to resign his elected city post to avoid prosecution - and claimed as the only reason, "It was time for a change."

Can you imagine the uproar from Baltimore's black community? Can you imagine the outrage? The white Pratt would have been called everything but a child of God - a racist, a bigot, a scoundrel worthy of being booted from office.

It hasn't been that way, of course. Ambridge is white, which didn't stop him from being one of the best councilmen black and white residents of the 2nd District - which is predominantly black - ever had. Pratt is black, and owes her presence in the comptroller's office to that fact. She was elected in 1995, when Baltimore's predominantly black electorate made Lawrence Bell president of the City Council and re-elected Kurt Schmoke as mayor. Schmoke's opponent, Mary Pat Clarke, was a councilwoman from the 2nd District, a liberal Democrat who had served black constituents well and formed alliances with black politicians. But in 1995, she suddenly became, to black Baltimoreans, that white woman running against Schmoke.

Pratt defeated the competent and reliable Julian Lapides, who had the disadvantage of being white. If Pratt were white, she wouldn't have received half the votes she got. If she were white, you'd be hearing a lot more uproar from black Baltimoreans about Ambridge's firing, especially if Ambridge were black.

But how have some black Baltimoreans responded? They support Pratt. She, they claim, had a "right" to fire Ambridge and choose her own staff. Pratt did nothing wrong, they claim, but that horrible Sun, with its racist, conniving editors, was trying to make the poor woman look bad.

Bashing The Sun is fast becoming the first refuge of the scoundrel in this town. To her credit, Pratt didn't engage in it. She gave a simple - indeed, simple-minded - reason for sacking Ambridge: It was time for a change. She has eschewed further comment, and thank heavens.

Now she might caution her supporters to dummy up. Their tortured logic, their convoluted reasoning, their lame defense of Pratt only points out her weaknesses. Assuming elected city officials do indeed have the right to hire and fire at a whim, Pratt lost that right - especially as regards the real estate office - when she tried to slip her campaign manager, Julius Henson, into the spot back in 1995.

Pratt's supporters don't mention that, of course. But Baltimoreans know the story. It should have been enough for them to turn Pratt out of office in 1999. In 1995, Pratt tried to give the real estate officer job to Henson without so much as considering, much less interviewing, anybody else. She changed her mind only after a public outcry. During the 1995 campaign, editors at the Baltimore Afro-American tried to tell Pratt to lose Henson as a campaign manager, that the guy was definitely bad news. Instead of listening, she tried to slip him into a fat city gig. She showed bad judgment then, and she showed it again last week.

Pratt hired as Ambridge's replacement one John D. Hubble, who comes not with Ambridge's reputation of integrity and competence but with baggage. Hubble resigned as a Circuit Court clerk - an elected position - in 1976, reportedly to avoid being indicted for improprieties in office.

Great choice? Considering the knee-jerk defense Pratt is getting, you would think so. She brings in Hubble to replace Ambridge, a man who has served Baltimore's citizens faithfully and with more integrity than Pratt ever has, not to mention much longer. And some people praise her for it!

Would they apply their logic to their own jobs? Suppose their bosses said, "Listen, I think you're doing a great job. But it's time for a change, so I'm going to fire you and bring in a replacement who might do a better job."

It's time to return to reality and for everybody to admit that what's going on here involves internal City Hall politics - of the Pratt vs. Mayor Martin O'Malley kind - and admit that Ambridge was simply a victim of it. The poor guy thought that serving well and faithfully would keep him his job. Instead, he got a kick in the teeth. One observer claimed Pratt fired Ambridge because he was nothing but a "flunky" for O'Malley. Those familiar with Ambridge know he's a flunky for no one. It seems to have cost him, especially with his now ex-boss, who was right about one thing.

It is, indeed, time for a change. It's just too bad Baltimore voters didn't make it in the comptroller's office in the 1999 election.

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