Shocking time for shock mayor

Crossroads: Martin O'Malley, after 16 months, faces tough decisions about they city and his future

An Editorial

March 18, 2001

EVERYWHERE HE goes, Mayor Martin O'Malley wears two emergency beepers on his belt. The most important is dubbed "the death rattle." It is reserved for acute crises; only seven other top city officials carry it.

Last Monday night, the mayor was returning from grocery shopping when his police radio started crackling with sketchy reports about gunfire. He soon felt the insistent rattle of his beeper. A police officer had been mortally wounded.

These are days of anguish for Baltimore and the 16-month-old O'Malley administration.

The number of Baltimore homicides, which the mayor established as a primary gauge for his success, is shooting up again after registering the first significant dip in a decade last year.

The city's financial situation isn't improving. Libraries and schools are being closed. Hundreds of public employees may have to be laid off.

There is no relief in sight:

The new Republican White House is likely to be less sympathetic toward the plight of cities. It certainly will not be as generous as the previous Democratic administration, which viewed Baltimore as an urban laboratory close to Washington -- and as a convenient television backdrop.

The city's own resources are increasingly inadequate. Its property tax base, the chief local revenue source, is not bouncing back as quickly as expected. If unsettled economic prospects produce a national recession, critical aid from the state also will dry up.

These kinds of woes represent setbacks for Mr. O'Malley. A late-addition, wild-card candidate, he was elected in 1999 on the basis of his assurances that he could stem crime and violence in Baltimore and engineer a turnaround for a city that had been declining for decades.

The former two-term City Council member is not accustomed to political adversity.

Not only that, but there is an arrogance in his manner of governing.

He was willing to sacrifice the redevelopment potential of Memorial Stadium so he could cater to parochial interests.

And he proposes that the city go into the immoral flesh-peddling business by becoming a downtown landlord to a disreputable strip club. This would be comic if it were not so ludicrously tragic.

For more than a year, Baltimoreans seemed mesmerized by their 38-year-old mayor's optimism, decisiveness and energy. He was photogenic, always on the go. If he wasn't politicking, he was performing with his Irish folk-rock band.

In polls, his popularity continued -- not only among middle-class whites, his core base, but also among African-Americans, who constitute the overwhelming majority of city voters. And yet he has touted his Irish heritage at every turn.

A single incident less than two months ago snapped people out of this euphoria. That was Mr. O'Malley's profanity-laden outburst against Patricia C. Jessamy, an African-American woman who is the city's elected top prosecutor.

In a nation where getting into the headlines seems to require more and more outrageous acts, Mr. O'Malley is a "shock mayor." At one legislative hearing in Annapolis, he said Maryland's chief judges' denial of the need for criminal-justice reform made him "want to throw up."

In court, a judge would have held Mr. O'Malley, a lawyer, in contempt. At that legislative hearing, though, the judges had to remain silent as the mayor of Baltimore ran his mouth.

These kinds of outbursts may sound spontaneous. In reality, they are scripted and calculated for maximum political effect.

The rant against Ms. Jessamy, though, backfired. Many people, especially African-American women, were offended. Never mind that Ms. Jessamy is widely viewed as a disappointment, a lucky deputy who got promoted and re-elected without opposition.

In living rooms, offices, barber shops and beauty parlors, the talk about Mr. O'Malley's gutter language prompted discussion of a distressing subject among African-Americans -- the power vacuum that allowed a white interloper to rise to the city's No. 1 office because of the disarray of black political forces.

In 1999, the vacuum could be blamed on Kurt L. Schmoke, who failed to groom a successor during his 12 years as mayor. But even though African-American women now hold the No. 2 and No. 3 municipal offices, City Council President Sheila Dixon and Comptroller Joan Pratt so far have not dazzled with their performances or personalities.

This has caused many African- American opinion leaders to quietly despair. Mr. O'Malley's star quality and political knack are so impressive that, based on today's circumstances, he could easily win re-election in 2004. But even if he were not seeking re-election then, some other white candidate might be able run away with the mayor's job.

There is a way to prevent this, of course. If Mr. O'Malley were elected governor -- or attorney general -- next year, Ms. Dixon would automatically succeed him. That would return City Hall to African-American control and change the dynamics of the 2004 mayoral election.

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