How many elephants can dance on the head of a mayor?

November 09, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

THE NEWSPAPERS last week were full of news about elephants, real and political.

From the wild, we had Anna and Dolly, avuncular sojourners at the Baltimore Zoo. They're leaving town. Thanks to weather, snipers and a $700,000 cut in aid from the state, zoo officials need to make economies. The costly-to-maintain elephants will be placed in a breeding program run by various other zoos around the country.

The symbolism is rich. Budget cutting has been somewhat abstract so far, but elephants are, to say the least, tangible. They'll be missed. And Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. may be held responsible for their departure. He presides over the state's budget. Yes, yes, Democrats helped to put the state over the economic barrel. But evicting the elephants will be blamed on Mr. Ehrlich. And what irony: Doesn't he know that elephants are his party's mascot?

In the political arena, the big-footed stars were Mayor Martin O'Malley, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Orioles majority owner Peter G. Angelos. Like self-respecting real elephants, the political variety occasionally stand in the middle of their turf and trumpet a shrill warning of one sort or another.

Anna and Dolly seemed rather demure in the wake of the news of their departure - not a word that accurately describes their political relatives.

The comptroller and the baseball magnate were holding a fund-raiser for the county executive, Mr. Duncan, who is regarded as Mr. O'Malley's chief Democratic rival as the year 2006 and another race for governor approaches. Political elephants are notorious schemers. They're known for that form of memory known as the grudge. But they're sublime logisticians as well. They want to know where they're going and, more important, with whom. Getting it all sorted out leads to melodrama. The fund-raiser dialogue, as reported by The Sun, was priceless.

Mr. O'Malley said Mr. Angelos and Mr. Schaefer had some nerve supporting Mr. Duncan for governor. But why, Mr. Angelos wondered, would the mayor think the Duncan fund-raiser had anything to do with a race for governor? He was shocked, shocked.

And, he added, there is simply no room in all of this for tantrums. To which an O'Malley partisan said, "Taking anger management lessons from Peter Angelos is like taking beauty tips from Tony Siragusa," a large former Ravens lineman who might be thought of as elephantine.

Mr. Angelos, the mayor said, was piqued because he wasn't getting 100 percent of what he wants from City Hall.

A Duncan backer said the Baltimore mayor sounded petulant and whiney. "We need a grownup for governor," she said.

It hasn't always been a pre-requisite.

Mr. Schaefer, for example, has thrown a tantrum somewhere every week (or every day) throughout his career. It's clearly not a bad tactic. Without tantrums there would have been no Baltimore renaissance.

Mr. Schaefer likes Mr. Duncan, who was smart enough not to succeed the comptroller as mayor of Baltimore. The former governor dislikes Mr. O'Malley almost as ferociously as he disliked the others who succeeded him.

So, Mr. O'Malley, who might wish to avoid tangling with either Mr. Schaefer or Mr. Angelos, finds himself in a classic bind. He must respond to the entire city, not just to the development crowd. At the moment, there are powerful voices nailing him from both poles: He just doesn't get it about downtown development and he's deserting the neighborhoods. Mr. Schaefer lived in the same vise, extricating himself as best he could with the odd tantrum.

If the war of the pachyderms means anything, it might mean that Mr. Angelos and Mr. Schaefer have thrown in early with the Republican, Mr. Ehrlich. As agents provocateurs, Messrs. Schaefer and Angelos foment strife between the Democratic rivals, Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Duncan, while the Republican takes the high road to victory. There are those who think this way in politics, believe it or not.

The O'Malley forces say they're not worried.

Mr. Angelos may not be the most popular man in Maryland.

"If he does for Doug Duncan what he did for the Orioles," said one O'Malley man, "Duncan couldn't be elected dogcatcher."

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM, and his column appears Sundays.

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