Choices led welfare chief down right path

November 12, 2003|By Gregory Kane

IT'S TOO BAD for Mayor Martin O'Malley that Floyd Blair, the temporary director of Baltimore's office of social services, didn't take up the offer those guys made that December night in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich appointed Blair - a native New Yorker - to the position in early September, which prompted a testy response from the mayor. He contended that Blair had no experience (look who's talking, some O'Malley critics must be snorting) and Baltimore's chief executive has traditionally appointed the head of the agency.

Yes, that seismic vibration, that ripple-causing shift and roiling in the cosmos is, indeed, caused by one stupefying event: O'Malley has finally found a New Yorker he doesn't like. (Let's not forget that the mayor's last two police commissioners have come from the Big Apple.) But if it weren't for the decision Blair made that night 21 years ago, neither O'Malley nor Ehrlich would have ever heard of the man.

Blair had just graduated from Brooklyn Tech, which is to New York City what Polytechnic Institute is to Baltimore - only not as good, I'm sure the folks at Poly will contend. After carefully navigating his way through those physics and calculus courses at Brooklyn Tech, Blair decided to do some literal navigating: He enlisted in the Navy under a delayed program that allowed him to wait until December.

The day before he was supposed to leave, Blair emerged from a subway station late one night and saw five guys walking toward him. It turned out that Blair - dressed in a jacket with a hood pulled over his head and face on a chilly, blustery night - had met a stick-up crew. One of the guys put a gun to Blair's head and demanded money. It was only when Blair removed his hood that the robbers recognized him as a homey from the neighborhood. Of course, sticking him up was out of the question at that point. There are, it appears, some lines honest muggers with integrity don't cross.

Instead the guys asked Blair if he wanted to hang out with them for the night.

"They meant," Blair said as he recalled the incident in his Guilford Avenue office last week, "did I want to go out with them and do to someone else what they were gonna do to me. But I knew I had to be somewhere the next day, and I knew I had to get out of the neighborhood." Blair declined the offer.

A few years later - after Blair had served aboard a nuclear submarine and started on a career that would eventually see him work as a legislative aide and as an associate director of a faith-based social services program for the Bush administration - he saw one of the guys from the stick-up group. A brief conversation revealed he had just been released from prison, where he had been since that late December night when, after leaving Blair, he and the others had tried to rob an undercover cop.

"The choices we make," Blair stressed. "Choices. Choices."

Blair figures his life can provide a cautionary yet edifying lesson for Baltimore's thousands - the drug addicts, the mentally ill, the victims of domestic and street violence, the inadequately housed: Their lives can change, dramatically and for the better, based on the choices they make.

The good choices in Blair's life were made early, even before that night in 1982. The most crucial was made for him. When Blair was born in a house in South Carolina, his mother's fourth child from as many fathers, relatives bundled him up and sent him to live with a foster mom in Brooklyn who was on welfare and lived in public housing. Blair did well enough at Brooklyn's P.S. 307 for the Archdiocese of New York to give him a scholarship to parochial school, which prepared him for Brooklyn Tech's rigorous curriculum.

Blair's educational journey took him to the College of New Rochelle, where he earned a degree in psychology. He graduated summa cum laude from Long Island University with a master's in education. In 1998, he came to Baltimore after being accepted at the University of Maryland Law School. Blair graduated from there in 2001.

While the political imbroglio swirls around him over who should or should not appoint the director of social services, Blair tries to focus on his 2,500-member staff, which handles 60 percent of the state's social work cases but hasn't had a staff increase in two years, as well as find ways to update a department he said still has a manual payroll system. Blair wants to stay above the political fray.

"People say there's a conflict and that I'm caught up in it," he said. "But this isn't really a fight. Unless you've been in a fight in Brooklyn, this ain't a fight."

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