At the end of a month in which he all but declared he was running for governor and saw his city average a homicide a day, Mayor Martin O'Malley acknowledged yesterday Baltimore's "stubborn challenges" and called on state and federal leaders to help solve them.
"We're not shifting blame or shirking our responsibility," O'Malley said in his sixth State of the City address. "But we are asking for help, knowing that our state and federal government also share that responsibility."
Speaking to about 100 people in City Council chambers, O'Malley looked back on his first five-year term and counted successes ranging from higher home values and school test scores to lower rates of lead-paint poisoning and teen pregnancy. But he also said there was more work to be done, particularly in public safety and schools.
"The state of our city is stronger than it was five years ago," he said. "By almost every measure, it is stronger than it was last year. But it is not as strong as the future of our children demands that it be."
A Democrat who said last week that he was "laying the groundwork" to challenge Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. next year, O'Malley said the city's high numbers of homicides and other problems should be considered those of the state and the country as a whole.
"These remain some of Baltimore's biggest problems," O'Malley said. "They remain Maryland's problems. They remain America's problems. For no city is an island."
Some in the audience said the address sounded like a campaign speech, with a few zingers aimed at Ehrlich, whom he never identified by name. ("Our accomplishment on [reducing] lead paint [poisoning] was so impressive that the governor decided to claim it as his own," O'Malley said.)
"I think he shot some arrows," City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger said.
The Maryland Republican Party mocked the mayor for having higher political ambitions at a time when homicides have spiked.
"One [homicide] a day - jeez, safe city," said Deborah Martinez, a spokeswoman for the state GOP. "He needs to worry about what's going on at home before he tries to go to the next level. How does he expect to serve the citizens of the state of Maryland when he can't even serve his citizens in the city?"
O'Malley first won office in 1999 on a pledge to cut the annual homicide count to 175, down from the 300 averaged over the previous decade. The number of homicides fell the first three years he was mayor, but it never dipped below 253, and it rose the past two years. The city recorded 278 homicides last year, the most since 1999. In the first 31 days of 2005, 31 homicides have been recorded.
"Just this month, we experienced a tragic spike in homicides, which we are working to get under control," O'Malley said. "And this month, we have seen the specter of witness intimidation in our city," he added, referring to the fire-bombing of a North Baltimore neighborhood activist's home.
At the same time, O'Malley maintained that there had been progress in fighting violent crime.
"As a result of these [crime-fighting] efforts, 24,000 fewer of our neighbors have become victims of violence than if we continued on our 1999 path. That number of people would fill Baltimore Arena twice over," he said. "As stubborn as our homicide rate has been, we have saved more than 250 lives compared to our city's average murder rate during the 1990s. They would fill five MTA buses."
O'Malley made the pitch that Maryland's governor, as well as federal officials, should do more to help the city. By help, he said, he meant greater cooperation as well as more funding, such as for homeland security.
O'Malley noted that there was a reluctance among branches of the criminal justice system to share information that could be used to pull parole and probation violators off the streets.
Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who attended the speech and has been the target of O'Malley's criticism in the past, said she has been working to resolve those problems.
"I stand with the governor and State's Attorney Pat Jessamy in calling for stiffer measures to help prevent witness intimidation," O'Malley said, referring to proposed legislation. "A new law will be helpful. And at the same time, violent offenders should not make bail as easily as they do now. And repeat violent offenders should be sent to jail for a very, very long time."
O'Malley has used previous State of the City addresses to roll out major policy initiatives. He unveiled Project 5000, his ambitious plan to gain title to more than a third of the city's 14,000 derelict properties, in his 2002 address. In his 2001 speech, he announced an "all-out crusade" with churches and nonprofit groups to turn around the lives of troubled city children.
O'Malley laid out a new plan in yesterday's speech, one that seemed modest by comparison. He said the city was offering to take over responsibility for maintaining and improving school facilities, saying that "educators are not necessarily the best-trained to manage boilers or roofs or buses or fleets or water fountains."
"We hope the school board and administration will quickly accept our offer, so we can get to work," O'Malley said.
Baltimore schools spokeswoman Edie House said she could not comment on the plan.
Sun staff writer Laura Loh contributed to this article.