The mayor's message: Accentuate the positive

O'malley's Baltimore

October 28, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley is big on symbols. Plastering the city with black-and-white posters to convince Baltimore to believe in itself. Running the 1814 flag up city poles to highlight local history. Putting a new coat of paint on troubled schools to give students a lift.

And then there's the photo of the partial glass of water that O'Malley's senior staff has been known to send out in response to newspaper articles it considers negative.

"Bet I can guess what you think this is," reads the accompanying message.

To the administration, the glass is half full. The mayor's mission has been to convince others - not just the news media, but ordinary Baltimoreans - that it is not half empty.

As O'Malley completes his first term in office and appears likely to win a second on Tuesday, the statistics-centric mayor points to a variety of numbers indicating that the city has made concrete, quantifiable progress on issues ranging from drug addiction to supermarket openings.

And although he can't put a figure on it, O'Malley says he also has started reshaping Baltimore's intangible sense of self, turning a place mired in a "culture of failure" into one with a sense of hope.

"I think the culture has changed a great deal in our city," O'Malley said. "That's not a small change. I think people have much higher aspirations and expectations as to where their neighborhoods should be going and also where the whole city should be going. And it's not without reason. And it's not without evidence of change. And it's not without some hard-won accomplishments."

Concrete advances

Since O'Malley took office in 1999, the city has seen improvement on a number of fronts.

Violent crime is down, even though - after dipping - the number of homicides is on the rise. Average home sale prices have more than doubled, from $69,000 in 1999 to a record $155,000 in August. School test scores have risen across the board. Drug-related emergency room visits have fallen. Population loss, which cost the city nearly a third of its residents since the 1950s, has slowed drastically. Dilapidated public housing is being mowed down, luxury waterfront condos are springing up, and big biotechnology projects are under way on the east and west sides.

The mayor has received national attention and prestigious good-government awards for CitiStat, a system he adapted from New York City police to monitor municipal efficiency.

Perhaps more important, he has earned grass-roots support from people like Cleora B. McCoy, a retired nursing home aide who left her old rowhouse in Northeast Baltimore last spring to become the first resident of Weinberg Court, a senior housing development on the former site of Memorial Stadium.

"I never thought I would be able to get a nice place because I was always low on money," said McCoy, 66. "He's done wonders for me. I don't know about everybody else, but I feel good. To me, he's a swell person."

Despite the positive trends, the half-full vs. half-empty debate rages on because by many measures, the state of the city is still bleak.

Baltimore remains one of the nation's most violent and drug-addicted cities. Some particularly horrific crimes - seven members of the Dawson family were killed two years ago in an arson fire, their punishment for reporting neighborhood drug-dealing to police - have brought unwelcome national attention to the city.

Baltimore schools - over which the mayor has limited control but a symbolic stake - were on the verge of financial collapse this year. The graduation rate remains a dismal 54 percent. And since the start of the academic year, classes in at least 14 schools have been disrupted by more than 40 fires and two shootings.

The average housing price still lags behind much of the state - so much so that when O'Malley bragged about it in a Montgomery County appearance last summer, the line got laughs.

Baltimore's property tax rate is by far the highest in the state, yet city finances are more than tight. O'Malley has had to raise income and other taxes and lay off hundreds of city workers.

Even some of the gains under O'Malley sound like back-handed compliments.

"For the first time in decades, Baltimore is not among the top 10 of the 100 largest counties in net population loss," read a city news release announcing revised census figures showing the loss of about 200 residents a month, down from 707 a month in the 1990s.

While that is moving in the right direction, it's hardly the stuff of a bumper sticker - at least one that wouldn't backfire.

During last year's Democratic primary, the mayor ran on the slogan "Better isn't good enough." By that, he meant he wouldn't rest on his laurels, but would continue to press ahead to further improve the city. But the slogan sounded like some thing that could have come from an opponent, contending that he hadn't done enough.

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