O'Malley, Ehrlich spar over official

Governor's choice to run city Social Services doesn't have mayor's backing

October 10, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Some suggest it is the first sniping of the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Mayor Martin O'Malley waging a publicity war over Ehrlich's appointment of lawyer Floyd Blair to run the city welfare office.

During a radio interview Wednesday, Ehrlich introduced Blair and asked listeners to support him despite Ehrlich's fight with O'Malley about the selection.

Yesterday, Ehrlich administration officials invited the media to watch them hold hands with Blair, sway and sing "We Shall Overcome" during a prayer service at Blair's church, the Pennsylvania Avenue African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in West Baltimore.

O'Malley's allies grumbled to the press that Ehrlich's people were ripping down O'Malley's trademark "Believe" signs from the local welfare offices, perhaps to take a swipe at O'Malley.

State officials confirmed removing "Believe" signs from the city's social services headquarters at 1510 Guilford Ave. but said they weren't doing it for political reasons.

"The intent was to protect the safety of the staff and prevent damage to the walls," said Rainier Harvey, director of administrative services at the state Department of Human Resources.

Harvey said the "Believe" signs on glass doors prevented security guards from seeing through the doors and watching for trouble.

At the center of all this is a power struggle between O'Malley and Ehrlich over who should pick the director of the agency, which is funded largely by the state and federal governments but is called the Baltimore City Department of Social Services.

The agency has 2,500 employees; a budget of about $1.6 billion a year; and serves at any one time about 40,000 city residents receiving temporary cash assistance, 7,000 children in foster care and 96,000 recipients of food stamps, among providing other services.

State law states that the mayor and governor must jointly pick the director. But city officials complain that Ehrlich is trying to force on them a choice who has little administrative experience and usurp a traditional privilege of local officials to pick their own local directors.

Christopher J. McCabe, secretary of the Department of Human Resources, said he intends to keep Blair as interim director of the office indefinitely, hoping O'Malley will come to accept him. Blair would replace Yvonne Gilchrist, who accepted in May a job leading Washington's welfare office.

"We provide the vast, vast amount of funding for these services, and it is completely consistent that I identify a candidate for this office," McCabe said. "I believe [Blair] is so valuable, his performance will convince the mayor."

Michael R. Enright, the city's chief operating officer, pointed out that the law states that the city and state share power equally in the appointment process and that an interim selection by the state can work for a limited time.

"This sounds like a bully saying, `It's going to go my way or the highway,'" Enright said. "The state may not like the law, but that is not an excuse to circumvent it. ... The mayor should be part of the selection process, not an afterthought."

During the prayer service in support of Blair's appointment at his church, Blair described himself to about 50 people as an ideal person to direct social services because he grew up receiving the same services in a Brooklyn public housing complex.

"As I stand here as someone who was once on public aid ... I can be an inspiration to people, saying to all of us, `Can we go a little further? Can we dig a little deeper?'" said Blair, a 39-year-old lawyer and father of five.

"Our department of social services is geared toward creating people like me," said Blair, who served in the Navy before working as a case manager for the New York Department of Social Services.

Blair is a registered Democrat who moved to Baltimore five years ago. He worked as a legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Edolphus Towns, a New York Democrat. Blair said his political involvement helped him get a job in April 2002 with the Bush administration as an associate director of a faith-based social services initiative.

During his recent interview on WYPR, Ehrlich defended his selection of Blair. "Floyd has become controversial for no good reason," Ehrlich said.

"Floyd has my full support," he added. "The mayor has his views and I respect them. But obviously we are out asking the community to get to know this guy."

Jerry Lymas, a friend of Blair's and director of a local development firm, said: "This is not about Floyd Blair; it's about the '06 gubernatorial campaign. We are going to see more skirmishes like this between the governor and mayor before then."

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