Resignation would aid Graziano above all

January 16, 2001|By Michael Olesker

AS EVERYONE has heard, Paul T. Graziano, housing commissioner of Baltimore, has a problem with alcohol and the English language in combination. That's his story, and he's sticking with it. And we now have gay men and women, joined by members of the language police and other sensitive souls, saying Graziano should be fired for the good of the city. They are only partly correct. Graziano should also leave for the good of Graziano.

Now he has disappeared into the corridors of alcohol treatment, but soon he will emerge. And the aftermath of the night of Dec. 28 will still be here. Graziano says he had too much to drink that night, causing him to make his loud and disturbing remarks about gays. There are witnesses to all of this, but there is also at least one important defender of Graziano: his boss, Mayor Martin O'Malley, who believes the incident was ugly, but an aberration.

Also, says the mayor, people don't understand how tough it is to find a good housing commissioner.

Those of us who remember the last housing commissioner will understand. That commissioner made his own dreadful remarks about a minority group. But he made them over the telephone and, when they were published in this newspaper, he simply denied making the remarks and concocted a different story.

Graziano, on the other hand, vented in public. When confronted, he held a news conference and apologized. And the mayor, sitting next to him, assured everyone that he was offended but insisted that such a thing would not happen again. Graziano, he said, was a very good man who had had a very bad night. The mayor seemed sincere, but his remarks did not precisely make people feel better.

For openers, the argument has been made that raw politics saved Graziano. That is, that gay men and lesbians don't have enough political power to make O'Malley do the right thing - but that, if Graziano had made similar repugnant remarks about a sizable racial or ethnic minority, he would have been sent packing because of the louder outcry and the possibility of serious damage at the polls.

That is probably the truth - and yet, it still nibbles at the edges of what is troubling here. We are a community of diverse people who sleep under the same blanket of civility. That's the definition of any community. And we depend on our government and political leaders to help set the healthy example for the rest of us.

When we lose that civility, we lose our sense of community, our sense of safety and good cheer and belonging, and we deal not from ethics or morality, but with the simple threat of numbers, and of how we might employ them against perceived enemies.

We are at our best when we make room for everybody and make everyone feel as if he or she belongs. That's what Graziano took away. He isolated one group of people and made them outsiders, made them less than their own neighbors. He stripped them of humanity - their own, and the humanity they share with heterosexuals.

Graziano knows this. He apologized when he sat with O'Malley, and he apologized in front of TV cameras, and he apologized in a letter to this newspaper in which he said all the right things. But he said them when his career was on the line and he had no alternative.

He is the housing commissioner of Baltimore. In this metro area, we have a history of all sorts of housing troubles and sensitivities: blacks once restricted from white neighborhoods, and whites running from blacks, and Jews steered away from non-Jewish neighborhoods, and large groups of people settling by nationality to protect themselves. From what? From people who would attempt to stigmatize them if they did not have the power of numbers.

And, not to be minimized in our housing history, we have had gays who worried - not without cause - that landlords would throw them out of their homes for no more reason than the discovery of what they did in the alleged privacy of their bedrooms.

How does Graziano deal with such sensitivities now? How does he gain trust? He can blame his remarks on alcohol, and maybe there's truth in it. But if he stays in Baltimore, he spends the rest of his days needing to make that explanation, needing to break down that first impression or else find himself in the same position that he tried to put gays: as The Other.

The only difference being: Graziano put himself in that position.

And the longer he stays there, the more uncomfortable it is for those with whom he must work - and for Graziano himself.

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