As decision about 2002 looms, mayor tends to city

October 23, 2001|By Michael Olesker

AS WE ARE all in the practice of reading other people's minds, it now falls upon everyone to read Martin O'Malley's. Even though it gets us nowhere. On O'Malley's desk the other day was the new Baltimore Magazine, with the lieutenant governor of Maryland's smiling face and a headline reading, "Governor Next: Is Kathleen Kennedy Townsend A Sure Thing?"

"Is she?" O'Malley was asked by a visitor holding up the magazine for him to see.

"I don't know," said the mayor of Baltimore. "I haven't read it yet."

This is known as a small jest - as if the mayor might find insights into his political intentions by reading a magazine instead of his heart. He is perceived to be Townsend's biggest gubernatorial obstacle, if he is so inclined. But the mayor would rather change the subject, as there are some people who think he's getting ahead of himself politically and thus losing focus on his current job.

Last week, after receiving a tip from the FBI, O'Malley issued a public warning about terrorist possibilities in Baltimore. He got blasted on some of the radio talk shows by callers who said he was scaring people without cause. Some attached political intentions: that he would cynically ride the current anxiety to a broader name recognition.

O'Malley is not unaware of such talk and late last week moved to quell some of it. He started talking about local issues in ways easily translatable to reporters. He had numbers showing that, while there's been a recent spate of homicides, usually drug-related, overall crime in the city has dropped significantly over the last week (down 19 percent), the last month (down 13 percent) and the last year ("1,606 fewer victims of violent crime this year," O'Malley said.)

The mayor related these figures at a Friday morning news conference at City Hall, after which he took an elevator upstairs for a meeting about housing problems. Clear enough? He was elected to curb violent crime and decayed housing. The war has naturally tugged at him, but the point was clear: He is absorbed by the city's business, even as the country reels from the terrorist attacks.

"The worst chemical attack this country has ever seen," the mayor said. He wasn't talking about anthrax. "Heroin and cocaine," he said, "which over the last 10 years has killed far more people than the attacks on the World Trade Center. ... And there's a misperception among drug gangs that our eye is off the ball now. It is not. We have to do both."

But while foreign and domestic wars continue, the political rumors heat up. Recent newspaper accounts, here and in Washington, have O'Malley seriously considering a run for governor. In his office last week, he glanced for a moment at the new Baltimore magazine.

The cover story, by Van Smith, describes Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's advantages - big money, big name recognition, a kind of incumbency after eight years at Gov. Parris Glendening's side - but notes two cautionary pieces of history.

One involves Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg, widely perceived to be William Donald Schaefer's successor. His gubernatorial campaign went nowhere. The other involves Lawrence Bell, former City Council president once assumed to be the next mayor of Baltimore. He finished a distant and quite humiliating third - to O'Malley.

Could it happen to Townsend? C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger has talked about running against her. In recent months, though, Ruppersberger has been romanced by Democrats on Capitol Hill who want him to run for Congress and have told him: Washington is where the important action is, particularly since the attacks.

Doug Duncan of Montgomery County and Wayne Curry of Prince George's County are each seen as potential candidates - but haven't got the money or the statewide name recognition of Townsend. And the lone Republican seen as a serious contender, Rep. Robert Ehrlich, has some enormous voter registration problems to overcome.

That seems to leave O'Malley.

But the mayor insists he has not made up his mind, that he's strictly focused on the city's business, or whatever terrorist warnings may lie ahead.

He also knows this: If he runs for governor next year, many city voters will consider it an act of betrayal. They did not vote for him to serve half a term and then kiss off the city's troubles. They did not elect him mayor simply as a springboard for higher office.

He knows this. Also, he has listened to William Donald Schaefer, who has been telling him to stay where he is. The state of Maryland will be fine, no matter who runs it. But the city has special problems, and the right person could fashion not only an urban inspiration but a political legend.

In a time of continuing city troubles, and the new national fears, O'Malley can put aside serious gubernatorial thoughts for at least a few more months. We can all try to read his mind. But it gets us nowhere, as he insists he is still working things out himself.

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