On crime, mayor may be own worst enemy

This Just In...

July 26, 2002|By DAN RODRICKS

I HAVE HEARD it described as "nemesis politics," and it seems to be what makes Martin O'Malley go. From when he was the most outspoken member of the Baltimore City Council through his 2 1/2 years as mayor, this particular brand of politics - having various nemeses to portray as enemies of reform and progressive governance - has been O'Malley's trademark.

Once his nemesis was Thomas Frazier, who served as police commissioner during the lost-in-the-wilderness years of the Schmoke administration. O'Malley made great mounds of hay out of constant harangues of Frazier and the way he ran the Police Department. O'Malley parlayed that rhetoric into a self-portrait as a lean and hungry young man intent on pulling Baltimore out of its long epoch of violent crime. Some of his criticisms of Frazier were fair, some were just noisy attacks that didn't seem at all constructive. Politically, making Frazier his nemesis worked. It got O'Malley lots of face time on the evening news.

Since becoming mayor, O'Malley has continued to engage in nemesis politics. But the list of nemeses has grown. Patricia Jessamy, the state's attorney for Baltimore, tops the list, followed by Thomas DiBiagio, the U.S. attorney here. Early in his tenure, O'Malley lambasted the judges of Maryland, including the chief judge. All of this was done in an effort to show that, while O'Malley is serious about combating crime in Baltimore, others are just standing in the way.

It makes good news copy and sound bites. And, to some degree, it gives those who voted for this man confidence that he will be relentless in pursuit of making Baltimore a safer and better city. It's why Baltimoreans elected him and why many were happy to hear him announce that he would not be running for governor this year. No fair-minded person would question O'Malley's sincerity in his outrage or his commitment to fixing the roughest, most crime-infested neighborhoods.

But, at some point, the nemesis politics wears thin and becomes transparent - Is he just trying to ruin Jessamy's re-election bid? - and you want to ask this mayor to rise above it or risk squandering a great opportunity to make a lasting improvement in the quality of life here.

I mean, once O'Malley has gotten everyone's attention on the subject of the prosecution of drug dealers and violent criminals - and that mission was long ago accomplished - wouldn't the next step be to broker cooperation? Wouldn't that mark true leadership? Instead of carting out statistics to support his sarcastic allegations that Jessamy and DiBiagio haven't been doing enough in the war on crime, wouldn't it be smart to have a meeting of minds? A few cups of coffee and a couple of ladyfingers would do more good than another round of finger-pointing.

And we might not have what we had yesterday - the woman who speaks for Jessamy escalating the rhetoric war by awkwardly blasting O'Malley as a sandbox brat who makes bogus attacks on her boss and doesn't back up his demands for swift and tough prosecution with increased funding for the state's attorney's overworked office.

Everyone but the defendant and his lawyer agrees: The 19-year-old man accused of shooting 10-year-old Tevin Davis should not be out on bail. The judge responsible deserves criticism. But an assistant state's attorney should have appeared at the bail hearing to argue the public's case, and police should have been there to back up that argument. Neither appeared, and I can't help but conclude, based on all excuses offered, that this only happened because of the lousy relations between police and prosecutors.

"It's appalling," the mayor said about Perry Spain's release on $35,000 bail and his return to the street where his alleged victim lives, and we'll agree. But, a citizen of this town has to ask whether the mayor's own behavior of the past two years didn't contribute to this particular breakdown. It seems to me that all his harping has compounded the problem of getting police and prosecutors to work together.

O'Malley is a smart man with a tremendous opportunity - even in the face of this bitterly frustrating problem of violent crime, kids shooting kids, the horrid phenomenon that continues to characterize this city even as other aspects of life here give hope for the future. But let's get back on point. Violent crime - the drug addiction, poverty, family dysfunction, ignorance and aimlessness that breed it - that's the true nemesis of this city.

Do I have to draw stick figures?

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