O'Malley's choice

May 09, 2002

HE STOOD at a Northeast Baltimore drug corner and declared: "My name is Martin O'Malley, I believe I can turn this city around by making it a safer place, and I mean to begin doing it now."

Voters bought this promise when Mr. O'Malley made it in 1999 -- and the lawyer and city councilman was catapulted into the mayor's office, proving that enthusiastic volunteers, a buoyant agenda and canny campaigning can overcome the handicaps of a late start, limited name recognition and a sparse treasury.

Now, 2 1/2 years after being sworn in, Mr. O'Malley is considering a blitz for governor. For the sake of Baltimore, he should control his ambition and stay on to finish his five-year term. The state's largest city needs his leadership far more than Maryland does.

Baltimore is at a crossroads. Throughout the 1990s -- during some of the fattest years in the nation's economic history, when other cities thrived -- Baltimore kept declining, stuck in a morass of abandonment and hopelessness. As mayor, Mr. O'Malley has been able to rekindle optimism. Longtime residents feel good again about their hometown; outsiders see potential here.

If Mr. O'Malley were to enter the race against Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, he would be an electrifying campaigner, no doubt about it. He might even make an inspiring governor. But that's not the issue.

Mr. O'Malley's contract with voters was to reverse decades of Baltimore's decline. Despite a palpable sense of revival, no irreversible turnaround has yet been achieved. That's why his candidacy, win or lose, could abort the promising momentum.

Here are two alternative scenarios of what might happen if the mayor were to run:

If Mr. O'Malley were to win the Sept. 10 Democratic primary for governor and the Nov. 5 general election, City Council President Sheila Dixon would automatically accede to serve the remainder of his term. She would want to put her own stamp on the government, and rightly so. Key O'Malley personnel would leave, and many of his initiatives would likely be jettisoned. From the first day, she would be distracted by a campaign for re-election.

The other scenario is even gloomier. Let's assume Mr. O'Malley runs for governor and loses. Having been badgered and beaten, he would have a difficult time exercising his clout. He might be seen as a lame duck two years before the end of his term in 2005.

Mr. O'Malley has many attributes of a great mayor. He is charismatic, decisive and impetuous -- all qualities that Baltimore sorely needs.

By running for governor, Mr. O'Malley might advance his personal agenda, but he would leave the suddenly disfranchised citizens of Baltimore in the lurch. His ambitious but unfulfilled promise to refashion the municipal machinery would face uncertain prospects, and the confidence that private investors have shown in Baltimore could evaporate.

Make no mistake: Baltimore can survive, even thrive, without Martin O'Malley. But it has a better chance of that with him.

Three summers ago, Mr. O'Malley promised that "with public will, energy and political leadership," Baltimore would join the ranks of America's great rejuvenated cities. "That is my pledge; I hope Baltimore's citizens will allow me the opportunity to enact it," he said.

Baltimore voters took him at his word. He should keep it.

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