O'Malley for mayor

Endorsement 2004

October 24, 2004

HE WAS THE law-and-order councilman who channeled outrage over a murder rate that topped 300 into a stunning mayoral victory. Five years ago, Martin O'Malley pinned the city's future -- a renewal of its neighborhoods, its schools, its tax base -- on fighting crime and shutting down the local drug trade. His formula for a better Baltimore hasn't always produced the desired results, but the city is safer, more livable and prospering in unexpected ways since the winter of 1999.

Mayor O'Malley's strong personality and results-driven style of governing have improved the city's civic well-being. He wants to return to City Hall for a second term, and Baltimoreans should send him back to carry on the tough work already begun: reforming a recalcitrant bureaucracy, attacking the corrupting influence of drugs, and revitalizing communities.

Mr. O'Malley's Republican opponent, Elbert R. Henderson, has tapped affordable housing and improved schools as his top priorities. A corrections professional for 32 years, Mr. Henderson splits his home life between the city and Carroll County. His desire to serve is commendable, but Mr. Henderson lacks the experience and background to be a credible alternative to Mr. O'Malley.

This election does, however, offer an opportunity to assess Mayor O'Malley's tenure and share our expectations of a new term.

A vote for Mr. O'Malley in 1999 was a vote for an articulate, forceful advocate for change in the city. It was a vote to stem the violence that claimed more than 300 lives every year for 10 years. It was a vote to close down corner drug markets. It was a vote for a New York style of policing that had shown results.

It was a vote for safer streets that he said would improve schools, bring jobs and end the monthly loss of 1,000 residents.

Five years later, violent crime is down, by the city's count, 37 percent. A New York style of mapping crime revamped police operations and enforcement. The murder rate dropped significantly in the first year of the O'Malley administration, but has been inching up ever since. An improvement, yes, but how much better might it have been had Mr. O'Malley found a police chief committed to serve through his term? Instead, the city suffered through the tumult of three commissioners in four years. Murders remain unacceptably high because the criminal justice system has yet to systematically attack the drug trade that underlies this violence. The city's success at stemming the flow of drugs is even tougher to assess.

Felony drug arrests are up, but the majority of offenders are corner dealers or users. Wholesale suppliers of heroin and cocaine appear insulated by a never-ending stream of young men with guns working the corners. Corridors of the city remain enslaved by drugs.

And yet the city, along with Dallas, has led the nation in reducing heroin-related emergency room admissions, which corresponds to an increased number of addicts being treated in Baltimore. (Treatment slots have more than doubled, from 11,000 to 25,000.)

A spike in juvenile murders led to a city-run program for high-risk teens -- at the mayor's urging. The health department also aggressively prosecuted landlords in cases of lead-poisoned children, which hadn't been done before the O'Malley administration. To measure its effectiveness, the Health Department adapted the city's crime-mapping strategy. That was happening across city government to make it more efficient and responsive -- a revolutionary change in how the city does business.

Change is often incremental, progress measured in small ways: 2,700 kids in a summer jobs program, 150 new restaurants in town, 18 new grocery stores. But the city's housing market, buoyed by low interest rates, reflects welcome prosperity. In September 1999, the average sale price of a house in Baltimore was $76,904, and it sold in 129 days; for the same month this year, the average sale price was $125,850, with a sale in 63 days. On this score, Baltimore is keeping pace with its neighbors.

The development climate also is thriving, capitalizing on the west-side revitalization project begun under former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and extending now into East Baltimore, where a new Johns Hopkins biotechnology park will rise. The project is ambitious: With the city's help, it seeks to rebuild an aging, impoverished neighborhood and add 8,000 new jobs. Mr. O'Malley's plan to return 5,000 vacant properties to the tax rolls has made steady progress. After two years of tedious work, the city Housing Department has acquired 3,718 properties, two-thirds of them houses. Project 5000 houses that have been sold or put up for bid number about 1,700. At the same time, a joint venture by the city, Baltimore realtors and civic leaders has helped transform blighted areas of Reservoir Hill. Project Scope expects to generate about $1 million in sales of city-owned property.

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