Ehrlich trying to show empathy amid city's pain

January 27, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

I AM DRIVING downtown the other morning, listening to some woman holler on my radio, when I see the writing on the wall at Greenmount Avenue and East 20th Street. The woman on the radio is hollering at Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the 2nd District Republican who might run for governor of Maryland. The writing on the wall is a scream at the whole world, each letter painted in big, black, furious letters. The woman's voice on the radio is written in blood.

She says she will never in this lifetime vote for Ehrlich. The show's host, former state Sen. Larry Young, says not a word. The woman says she believes nothing Ehrlich says. Ehrlich asks her a simple question: Does she know his name?

I wait for her response as I turn my car off Greenmount and park on East 20th. "Do you know my name?" Ehrlich asks again. The woman ignores him. She rants about years of lies leading to generations of decay. On East 20th Street, you can quantify the decay: Of 29 rowhouses on the block, 22 are vacant, boarded up, windows smashed.

"Do you know my name?" Ehrlich asks the woman again.

It is clear that she does not; hers is a voice lashing out against any authority figure. When she hangs up, Ehrlich, trying not to get rattled, makes a gentle joke about how nice it is to have "an intellectual discussion." But another voice on the radio butts in, telling him that the woman was indeed intellectual, that she was attempting to articulate her pain, and that Ehrlich, and the Republican Party, and all politicians who have looked the other way have got to understand this.

On East 20th Street, amid the abandoned homes picked clean by junkies, amid the trash that lies everywhere, amid the young men who stroll from one end of the block to the other as part of their daily occupational routine, there are the lingering, dreadful words on walls:

"Fire Rules."

"Outlaw Immortalz."

"No Help For You."

"As The Struggle Continues."

Each line is an echo of the woman on the radio, venting her rage, not quite offering a solution but shrieking just to get rid of her pain.

"You understand where this comes from?" Ehrlich is asked the morning after the broadcast.

"I do," he says, "and I hope it comes through that I do. I understand, but I also have a right to expect some respect. I read history. I understand some of the pain. Very few whites can understand all of it. But you don't move the ball forward just by yelling. That woman was just angry, lashing out at the establishment or Republicans or Congress or power itself. She wasn't articulating, she was just yelling. I'm not gonna put up with that. It's not my personality."

But it is part of his dilemma. Ehrlich says he is "leaning toward" giving up his congressional seat to run for governor of Maryland. He'll decide sometime after the General Assembly closes business in early April. His dilemma is partly his party, partly his background, and partly the eternal American divide along racial lines. He needs African-American votes to get elected, but history works against him.

On the radio, Ehrlich was challenged about the Republicans' record on race. His response was to recall the Dixiecrats, the hard-line segregationist Southern Democrats who refused to yield on segregation. But that was more than a half-century ago. Strom Thurmond was still a young man.

Since then, nearly every piece of civil rights legislation was championed by Democrats, and fought by Republicans. This is not news to anyone, is it?

"Well, yeah, there was Nixon's Southern strategy," Ehrlich acknowledges.

But never mind a history of the last 50 years. We are here in 2002, and we have scores of neighborhoods resembling Greenmount and 20th, and those such as Ehrlich who arrive to inherit the ruins.

In Annapolis, we have politicians wringing hands over the budget woes the next governor will inherit. For Ehrlich, this is a political plus in any approaching campaign.

But a budget is nothing compared to the destruction of neighborhoods - and this is the thing that causes shrieks on the radio, and blaming beyond articulation.

"Whom do you blame for this destruction?" Ehrlich is asked now.

"Wow," he says. "Wow. There's a lot of blame to go around. Both parties, left and right." A bland answer, a nonanswer intended to sound brave and offend absolutely no one. "The growth of the drug culture, that's the top reason," Ehrlich says.

He mentions Kurt L. Schmoke's decision, early in his City Hall years, to talk about treating drugs as a health issue instead of trying to lock up every street junkie.

"I was not critical of Schmoke when he came out with that," Ehrlich says.

"Not critical?" If this is intended as a heroic gesture, it falls short. Schmoke stood alone against a thunder of opposing voices.

"There's been a lot of silly debate on the issue," Ehrlich says. "It's up to the governor to drive the debate. A Republican like me could drive the issue. Like Nixon going to China. We can't build enough jails for junkies. So, yes, we do have to change the fight."

But Ehrlich veers off now. The subject still needs pondering. The thought of treating junkies like human beings is still too hot.

And so we have this: Ehrlich trying to show more empathy than any Maryland Republican has shown on the troubles in impoverished Baltimore, and potential voters uncertain they can believe him; and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who has made law enforcement one of her pet projects, and the law enforcement system in Maryland is a disaster area; and another Democrat, Martin O'Malley, making crime his key issue while the homicides continue to pile up.

And homicides are only a piece of it. It is the continuing trouble in places like 20th Street off Greenmount Avenue, where no homicides occur because almost no one is around. And we're left with furious words scrawled on decaying walls. And the sound of a woman hollering on the radio, because everything else has failed.

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