This time, ambitions, philosophies collide

January 20, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

EACH OF us lives with a sword over his head. Martin O'Malley is Robert Ehrlich's. The mayor of Baltimore stepped into the swarming crowd on the main floor of the State House the other day, and drew an endless line of reporters and television cameras. The governor of Maryland, meanwhile, descended a wide staircase with a sizable entourage bundled around him, and barely a head turned.

This is a snapshot, not an exact popular measurement. Both men have star quality. But the moment tells us, as the General Assembly begins to get serious this week, that there is more than one person with a voice waiting to be heard - and more than one point of view.

O'Malley will go to Annapolis this winter as few mayors ever have. When William Donald Schaefer was running City Hall, he went to the General Assembly each session and stormed and ranted when he wasn't begging and pleading. The city always needed money. By the time Kurt L. Schmoke was mayor, he had Schaefer sitting in the governor's office. Whatever their personal disagreements, Schmoke knew Schaefer would always come through for his city.

But the two mayors had something else going for them: They knew they weren't alone. They had Howard "Pete" Rawlings and Clarence Blount and Barbara Hoffman, three of the General Assembly's most respected members, lobbying daily for the city. Each was a great moral force for the city's special needs, and each knew the techniques for slipping legislation through rough political waters.

They're all gone now, and nobody's going to fill their shoes overnight.

So it falls to O'Malley to try to make up the difference. He'll be a regular in Annapolis this session. But, in the process, he can do more than plead Baltimore's case. He can argue a philosophy.

This is a man who believes government exists to make a difference in people's lives; Ehrlich believes government too often gets in everybody's way. It is, in shorthand, the difference between a liberal and a conservative, and it defines each man's approach to his job.

Much has been made of the Ehrlich-O'Malley political conflict, but now is a chance for something beyond personal ambition: an honest articulation of philosophy, of why government needs to step in - or stay out.

The governor will offer his State of the State address next week, and explain why Maryland must have gambling to balance its books. Surely a philosophy of government rests on more than the roll of a slot machine. The mayor will be showing up, over the coming weeks, to seek money for schools, and for police, and for higher taxes to support all of it.

"Gambling," he was saying the other day, "is a gimmick to give Ehrlich political cover."

If the state drowns in red ink, the governor can blame it on all those Democrats in the legislature standing in gambling's way - and no matter that slots wouldn't begin producing revenue for another two years.

O'Malley's own feelings on gambling are mixed. If it's inevitable, he'd want slots, not casinos, and to keep them restricted to racetracks. He wants impact fees for the area around Pimlico Race Course, and money for gambling addiction.

But the argument has to be more fundamental. For all its financial anxiety, Maryland has the highest median income in the country. Does such a state need to turn to gambling? Then there are the schools. O'Malley has a tattered school system deep in debt, fighting for legitimacy, and holding its breath for Thornton funding.

Last week, the mayor listened intently as House Speaker Michael E. Busch pointed out the incongruity between the city's school troubles and the state's generally top-notch higher education: Maryland ranks first in percentage of its workers with bachelor's and postgraduate degrees. We're first in professional and technical workers. We're second in concentration of doctoral scientists and engineers, and second in federal funding for research and development.

This governor will fight increased taxes this winter - but, as former House Speaker Casper Taylor remarked, "There are 30 states spending more money on government than we are. We're surrounded by sales taxes higher than ours. Refusing to raise taxes to meet our own needs ... where's our revenue stream?"

This, from a man whose voice has been one of the loudest arguing for slots - but who knows they're not enough.

So, last week, we had Mayor O'Malley standing in that crowded State House corridor, where a reporter asked him, "Will you try to sit down one on one with the governor on some of these financial issues?"

"I'd like to," O'Malley said, "but he's not that kind of guy. His staff shields him. He does not personally sit down and talk issues of substance. Other governors, yeah. But this governor doesn't. Last year, I wanted to talk about the budget with him. So we set up a meeting.

"But I get there, and there are two reporters sitting there. He says, `You don't mind if they sit in, do you?' I felt like it was some scene in his carefully scripted biography, and I was being asked to play a supporting role. It wasn't a candid conversation, which is what we need."

Lacking such private conversation, this mayor intends to go public. At their best, the two men might remind us not only about their political ambitions, but about their philosophies of government.

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