It's all a matter of style

Urban Chronicle

Approach: Stories about Walter S. Orlinsky's tenure as City Council leader bring to mind how other recent presidents handled the job.

February 21, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

THE FUNERAL last week of former City Council President Walter S. Orlinsky got me thinking about the office -- and the differing approaches taken by some of its recent occupants.

As the outpouring of stories and columns after his death Feb. 9 made clear, Orlinsky, who headed the council from 1971 to 1982, put his stamp on the No. 2 job in a government designed to give the mayor almost all the significant power.

It was, first and foremost, a forum for his ideas, be they farfetched or forward-thinking. It was also a needle that he could use to prick the mayor -- to the amusement of himself and, sometimes, the rest of us.

The mayor under whom Orlinsky served, William Donald Schaefer, was himself once a council president. Schaefer, who went on to serve two terms as governor and is now the state comptroller, was council president from 1967 to 1971 when Tommy D'Alesandro III was mayor.

By his accounts and that of others, Schaefer was no Orlinsky.

"I never argued with Tommy in the open," Schaefer said last week.

In his book William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography, C. Fraser Smith, a Sun editorial writer, described Schaefer's tenure this way: "Willingly, eagerly, Schaefer accepted the scut work of public life, the problem-solving dilemmas that D'Alesandro dreaded. ... D'Alesandro said, `If I told him, tomorrow morning at 9 a.m., we're going to jump off the Maryland Bank building,' he'd say, `I'll be there at 5 of 9.'"

Of course, Schaefer never had much of a chance to get frustrated in the job. After one term as mayor, D'Alesandro announced he'd had enough and wouldn't run again, paving the way for Schaefer's successful mayoral campaign in 1971.

When Orlinsky gave up the council presidency in 1982 after admitting to taking a bribe from a waste-hauling contractor, 2nd District Councilman Clarence H. Du Burns ascended to the presidency.

A year later, campaigning for the council presidency, Burns outlined his vision of the office at a candidates forum. "I think your relationship with the mayor ought to be so close that when he gets in bed at night and pulls up the covers, he can feel you," he said.

With Schaefer at the peak of his powers after the openings of Harborplace and the National Aquarium, it wasn't a bad political move. Burns won, defeating 2nd District colleague Mary Pat Clarke, who advocated a more independent role -- and stayed true to his word.

"Never had an argument with Du -- not behind closed doors, down the cellar, anywhere else," Schaefer recalled. "Our ideas were very similar, very similar."

Burns became mayor in 1987, when Schaefer went to the State House; he was succeeded as president by council veteran Frank X. Gallagher, who held the post for 11 months before retiring.

But Burns' ties to the popular Schaefer carried only so much weight with the voters. He lost the mayoralty that fall to Kurt L. Schmoke, a young, telegenic state's attorney, as Clarke resurrected her career and won the council presidency.

A longtime friend and ally of Orlinsky -- she was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral -- Clarke emanated energy the way Orlinsky espoused ideas. So peripatetic and devoted to constituent service was Clarke that she became known as the "fourth councilperson" in every district, a constant advocate for responsive government.

Clarke lacked Orlinsky's panache, but she shared his frustration -- and exceeded his bravado. She not only criticized the mayor's policies -- on budget and taxes, public safety and housing -- she challenged his re-election. When she announced, midway into her second term, that she would run for mayor, she guaranteed that the last two years of her tenure would have as much the flavor of a campaign as a government. The council presidency had gone from total fealty to outright insurrection.

Clarke was beaten convincingly by Schmoke in the 1995 mayor's race. But one of her disciples, 4th District Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III, won the council presidency in a four-way race that included a close Schmoke ally -- an indication to some that the voters had come to appreciate tensions between the city's two top leaders.

Unlike Clarke's tenure, Bell's presidency was as desultory as it was contentious. After Schmoke decided not to seek a fourth term in 1999, Bell was humiliated in the mayor's race, finishing third behind Martin O'Malley as three-term Councilwoman Sheila Dixon was elected council president.

Dixon said last week that she sees her role as "somewhat of a mediator" between the council and community groups and the administration, noting as an example last year's budget deal that increased spending for police but postponed the privatization of 177 low-paid city workers.

It's a role Dixon says stems in part from her experience on the council under Clarke and Bell. It's also seemingly sound strategy for dealing with a dynamic, highly popular first-term mayor -- and for trying to dispel what she acknowledges are "people's perceptions that I'm difficult."

Still, after two years, her image as council president seems largely unformed. She has yet to create an image as enduring as the one during her first term on the council, when she brandished a shoe during a racially tinged debate on redistricting.

And although Dixon says she won't "roll over" on things she disagrees with, she says there are those, particularly in the African-American community, "saying I'm in the mayor's pocket."

In other words, it's a difficult line she's trying to walk -- one that hasn't been walked in years.

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