For the mayor it's all personal, especially fire

He appears to take deaths as affront to crime fight


October 19, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Martin O'Malley is the mayor who takes everything personally - and sometimes his responses to crises are explosive and unpredictable.

After the deaths of five children and their mother in an East Baltimore arson, O'Malley first avoided the media as he visited the burned-out rowhouse, comforted relatives and consulted with his police commissioner.

But when he heard his silence questioned on a radio show, he drove over to the studio - showing up unexpectedly, shaking and teary-eyed - and delivered an impassioned on-air attack on the drug dealers who may have set the fire and the talk show hosts who were criticizing his police commissioner.

"If you enjoyed that, come outside after the show, and I'll kick your ass," O'Malley told the WBAL hosts just before leaving the studio.

A man with a short temper and the tough-guy cockiness of a weightlifter, O'Malley weeps openly at police funerals, blows up at reporters, criticizes prosecutors, mocks uncooperative judges - all in what he regards as his crusade to save the city.

He has a love-hate relationship with the media. He's comfortable in front of the microphone on political issues but touchy when it comes to Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, and he refuses to talk about the deaths of friends and other highly personal issues.

The mayor often wears his passion in public. But those who know him say they've rarely seen him look so down as after the firebombing of the home of Angela Dawson and her children.

It was almost as if he took their deaths as a personal affront to himself and his "Believe" campaign, which urges people to summon the courage to report drug dealers to the police. Dawson had the guts to believe and speak out - and her children, police say, burned to death as a result.

"He [O'Malley] has just been traumatized by this, both as a father and a mayor," said Michael Cryor, a co-chairman of the "Believe" campaign. "The mayor's wife has just had a new baby, and I think the vulnerability of children is very much with him. It's a really tough job being mayor at a time like this."

The mayor wasn't talking to the media yesterday. But his office sent a notice: "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!!! Join Mayor O'Malley and the Citizens of Baltimore in a community rally/vigil for the Dawson family." It will be held at 5 p.m. Monday at Preston and Eden streets.

City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who lives only a few blocks from Dawson and her children, said he thinks the mayor has done well in comforting the family and helping to direct an enlarged police presence in the neighborhood.

"I think the mayor's leadership has been great," said Young. "The reason the mayor has not been in the news is because there is an investigation going on. ... Everyone's focus right now is on getting the most violent criminals off the street."

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., the mayor's father-in-law, said O'Malley is obsessed with driving down the city's murder numbers, frequently talking about "good weeks" and "bad weeks" by the number of deaths registered.

The mayor becomes deeply troubled, Curran said, when the tide seems to be shifting in the wrong direction, as it did this week. Or when police officers die trying to fight O'Malley's battles.

"He is emotional - but someone better be emotional about the city," said Curran. "He kind of reminds me of [former Mayor] Don Schaefer. ... He always speaks his mind; you always knows where he stands. That is part of the charm."

Not long after the fire, O'Malley drove to the rowhouse at 1401 E. Preston St. where the children had died. "I went by the scene of the fire, and I've been in constant contact with our fire chief and our police commissioner," O'Malley said earlier in the week.

"And I've looked into the eyes of that chief who was out there in the early morning hours, and you could just see how shaken he was by the grave visage he had to witness of those little kids being carried out of that house," O'Malley said.

The mayor and his staff coordinated several meetings of police, prosecutors, and heads of city and state agencies to focus the arson investigation.

He did not hold any news conferences Wednesday or talk to the news media about the arson, releasing only a written statement through a spokesman.

The next morning, O'Malley heard his public silence being criticized on the Chip Franklin talk show.

The mayor drove to the station, apparently angered by co-host Rob Douglas' suggestion that O'Malley was hiding from the public. Douglas also asserted that "nitwit politicians" were in part to blame for the city's troubles.

O'Malley gave an impassioned call on the air for city residents to rise up against drug dealers. And after being goaded by his hosts, O'Malley said, "Come outside after the show, and I'll kick your ass."

It may have been a joke. But O'Malley has in the past been critical of such belligerent sarcasm from his colleagues.

In 1996, when O'Malley - then a city councilman - tried to question housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III about corruption in his agency, Henson shot back a threat: "If Councilman O'Malley wants to meet me in an alley ... "

Back then, O'Malley said he was offended by the suggestion of a fistfight. "He wants to meet me in an alley, can you believe it?" O'Malley asked. "I'm dumbfounded. It's not only unprofessional, it's common, ignorant and base. A threat of violence in a public forum."

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