Mr. O'Malley's hometown security march

April 20, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

IT'S ALL about ambition, right? All about the national office with, maybe, a stopover in Annapolis.

That's what "they" are saying: Mayor Martin O'Malley, the politician with rock star appeal, wants to be governor and/or president.

The talk intensifies because Baltimore's Democratic mayor finds himself in demand on national radio and television these days. He's the angry, demanding, focused and knowledgeable exponent of homeland - or hometown - defense. He wants to know why Baltimore and other cities don't get the kind of financial help they need to be ready for chemical or biological attack. He's ready to criticize the president.

He's latched onto one of those issues that match up perfectly with the job. He's the mayor of a big, vulnerable city and a spokesman for other mayors. He's never been shy about grabbing the microphone, and here is the kind of disaster scenario that public officials love, one that allows them to demonstrate command presence, authority and advocacy for people.

One of the mayor's many impressive aides, Michael Cryor, gave him a perfect one-liner for people who challenge his decision to take on President Bush and Homeland Security boss Tom Ridge.

"Homeland security," he says via Mr. Cryor, "is like dental floss. It's not really necessary unless you want to keep your teeth."

Beyond the bon mot, Mr. O'Malley observes, new times give mayors grave new challenges.

"I feel a very personal responsibility to make sure we're at the top of the list for government help in this area," he says. Baltimore, he notes, has some of the world's most acclaimed medical institutions "not the Liberty Ships or Martin Marauders Baltimoreans built during World War II, but their equivalent."

So, Mr. O'Malley, still the leader of a band called O'Malley's March, talks about port security - about the minuscule number of container ships that get inspected and by whom: the city of Baltimore without much federal help. He talks about the first responders - police and fire and others - who don't have the right protective gear. He talks about the frightful bureaucracy that stymies the effort to actually collect what he calls the wholly inadequate share of homeland protection money.

He's challenged by some, including potential opponents in the city's September mayoral primary, to explain why he's not paying more attention to the other problems of Baltimore.

He says he's paying no less attention to murder than he ever did - more, actually, and he finds some potentially useful overlap between the war on terrorism and the war on drugs. Better port security, he says, could reduce illegal importation of heroin and cocaine. A better-prepared and better-equipped Police Department could help to reduce the death toll on city streets, a figure that annually exceeds the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq. Good police work has enabled federal authorities to arrest people who might have ties to terrorists.

These issues, Mr. O'Malley says, elevate the importance of mayors in a world shadowed by terrorism. The much-acclaimed leadership of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the aftermath of Sept. 11 proves the point, although the mayoral duties of today have a somewhat less glamorous aspect.

The consuming task of making the bureaucracy work, particularly the newly formed homeland security bureaucracy, has plenty of eye-glaze potential, Mr. O'Malley says. Why doesn't the city get reimbursed for security purchases covered by the new laws - at the time of purchase, not months later after the city has used its limited resources to make these purchases? That's only one of the issues that require mayors to have a considerable cadre of grant hustlers and facilitators riding herd on the new system.

Mr. O'Malley, who introduced computerized accountability to City Hall operations, seems eager to find ways to expedite all of this, to make the system respond to the emergency that exists even without burning office towers - to prevent a recurrence.

At the same time, he's raising big money for his next campaign, already begun, of course. The city's primary elections will be held Sept. 9 and the mayor's teams are asking friends and business allies to pony up $4,000 for a May fund-raiser. That sum is the most any individual giver can provide a single candidate in one four-year election cycle. It's always been the goal of politicians to get givers to "max out," because you get the money and the other guy doesn't.

Politics and homeland defense demand a wary eye, a constant attention to detail and to the big picture.

It's ambition, but it's not blind ambition.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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