Baltimore a strength and liability for O'Malley

Mayor focuses on recent positive news after FBI report of more violent crime

Statistics could hurt expected run for governor

June 20, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The rush of recent good news about Baltimore - its ranking as a top international travel destination, an uptick in how Wall Street views the city's fiscal future - seemed too good to last.

And sure enough, what many consider to be the reality of Maryland's largest city hit home this month. Violent crime rose last year for the first time in five years, according to the latest FBI statistics.

Those are the kind of numbers that haunt big-city mayors as they attempt to advance in politics.

As Mayor Martin O'Malley prepares for an expected run for governor, he must persuade voters to concentrate on the positive - such as Time magazine ranking him in April as one of the country's five best mayors - and brush aside negatives such as the city's high homicide rate and struggling classrooms.

In short, he must buck a trend in modern American politics: the career stagnation of city mayors.

Cities can be tough places to live in, and even harder to govern. Blight, crime, substandard housing and poor schools have stymied generations of policy-makers. Residents with means move to the suburbs, leaving behind a population often mired in poverty and addiction.

"No matter how successful a mayor you might be in a big city, you have an awful lot of problems that remain," said Stephen Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis who was defeated in a run for Indiana governor in 1996, and is now a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "You can be very successful in a lot of areas, but it doesn't take a genius as a political opponent to come up with almost an endless list of things you haven't fixed and mistakes you made."

School testing results released this month offer a prime example. O'Malley can rightfully claim that Baltimore schools have made impressive academic gains that rival those of any big city, according to the latest Maryland School Assessment results. But his opponents are sure to note that they remain the worst-performing in the state.

For most of the past century, big-city mayors have been larger-than-life figures, characters who dreamed big and lived large - Fiorello LaGuardia in New York, Richard Daley in Chicago, Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia.

But none of them moved on to higher office. Roads to state houses are lined with the failed candidacies of supremely popular mayors. Consider Ed Koch in New York, who won a second term in 1981 when three of every four voters in the nation's largest city cast a ballot for him and lost a gubernatorial primary the next year to Mario Cuomo.

A variety of factors explains the phenomenon, from tension among cities and rural and suburban sections of a state in the battle for tax dollars and other scarce resources, to racism and xenophobia as cities have grown more ethnically and racially diverse.

"In the age of sprawl, cities that cannot expand - Baltimore's last annexation was 1917 - become filled with high concentrations of poor people," said David Rusk, a former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., and an urban government expert who has studied Baltimore and its suburbs. "They are looked upon as having city problems. And that is just a euphemism for poor blacks."

For O'Malley, there is hope: Baltimore and Maryland have shattered the rules before.

William Donald Schaefer rode the success of Inner Harbor redevelopment to Annapolis. Before him, Theodore R. McKeldin was a Republican mayor and then governor.

"I think every state is different. ... I think people in our state are smart," O'Malley said in an interview. "They expect their leaders to be effective and make progress."

In Maryland, county governments are preeminently important - more so than in most other states - and Baltimore functions much like one of the state's 23 other counties, said Rusk.

Seen in that light, Maryland has been governed for 16 of the past 19 years by a mayor, covering the tenures of Schaefer and Parris N. Glendening, the former county executive of Prince George's County.

"But that is relatively rare," Rusk said.

Inevitably, mayors who seek higher office must campaign on a theme that they have a successful legacy, that they will do for the state or the nation what they have done for their city.

That's how former Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell became governor of Pennsylvania. An accessible leader who regularly appeared on sports television shows promoting the region's beloved Eagles, Rendell was embraced in the Philadelphia suburbs as a politician who could grapple with the city's problems.

O'Malley might be following a similar route. His visibility as the lead singer in an Irish band gave him a sort of star quality that eludes many leaders.

The Baltimore television market permeates most of the state, so even Marylanders who rarely cross the city's borders can follow his exploits nightly.

And in Maryland, much of the state is populated by ex-Baltimoreans who still think fondly about their hometown.

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