Annapolis gets easier the second time around

O'Malley's team brings sharper focus to legislative agenda

March 01, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The General Assembly session is half over, and Mayor Martin O'Malley is getting down to the business of pushing his agenda. He's making twice-weekly visits to Annapolis, giving his delegation face time and meeting with influential legislators.

Last week, he urged the House Appropriations Committee to provide $1 million so that police departments across the state can buy high-tech surveillance equipment. Then he headed to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee for an afternoon hearing on Baltimore's criminal justice system. In between, senators and delegates stopped him in the hallways for 30-second conferences.

Now in his second year in office, O'Malley and his legislative team have sharpened their message and focus. Last year they were rookies. They put in too many bills, spread themselves thin and left State House veterans wondering if they understood the nuances of the Annapolis game.

This year is different. It has to be.

"We have a pretty heavy burden of proving that state dollars are going to be well spent when they're invested in Baltimore City's comeback," O'Malley said. "One of the things I said last year and continue to say is, `We're in Annapolis not for a handout, but for partners and investments that will pay dividends not only in Baltimore but in the entire state.'"

The mayor and his team spent the past year building political bridges. State leaders came to City Hall for CitiStat presentations on government accountability, and they left impressed with what they had seen. O'Malley drove out to Western Maryland for a visit with House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. He spent time in Hagerstown, where he gave the keynote address to the Maryland Municipal League.

Those efforts paid off even before the 2001 session began. Negotiations with Gov. Parris N. Glendening led to an extra $55 million in the fiscal 2002 budget for Baltimore's troubled school system.

The governor also proposed a $22 million increase in state funding for drug treatment. More than one-third of that money will go to help hundreds of Baltimore addicts free themselves from the grip of drugs and alcohol. Both funding proposals have strong support in Annapolis and will likely survive the budget process.

"How does this happen? By not going it alone, realizing that there are a lot of people throughout the state that believe drug treatment should be a higher priority than it has been and calling on them to make the case to the governor," said O'Malley. "I think it was a great example of making Baltimore's issues the state's issues."

Those early victories will help the city solve some of its chronic problems, but tough fights remain in the session's final weeks. O'Malley wants $8 million for highway improvements in southern Baltimore; $10 million to continue the revitalization of downtown's west side, where the state already has committed millions of dollars to renovate the Hippodrome Theater. And there is a $24.7 million request for the Digital Harbor, a hodgepodge of capital projects that has yet to win wide support.

Yet, Baltimore's mayor can tap into a deep reservoir of good will among state legislators.

"Down here, he has allies," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "We need to make his administration successful, not just for him or for the city, but for the state."

As much as state legislators may like O'Malley's energy, enthusiasm and evident concern for Baltimore, some wish he would be a bit less arrogant, a tad more deferential and in step with State House culture. His inflammatory remarks after State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy's decision to drop a police corruption case reminded many that the mayor's temper can sometimes impede his best efforts.

The comments he made in January were reminiscent of statements he made last year when he said the city's judicial system was "dysfunctional" and that he would "like to throw up" over the remarks of court officials. That kind of language sharply contrasted with that of his understated predecessor, Kurt L. Schmoke, and left many puzzled.

"We're still adjusting to his style, and he's still learning our legislative process and culture," said House Speaker Taylor. "I'm not so sure he's been down here long enough yet, or often enough yet, to teach the legislature what it needs to know about him."

Still, some in Annapolis find the mayor's candor refreshing.

"You can tell he's sincere. You can tell he's candid," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "That's very attractive in a politician. You get the feeling this is a guy you wouldn't mind having a beer with or having lunch with."

Along with concerns over the mayor's style are worries about the financial state of his city. Many are waiting for O'Malley to make the deep budget cuts they believe are needed to fix Baltimore.

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